Chapter 42: It’s Houston’s urban development rule book, and it’s ready for updating

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by Cynthia Lescalleetchapter 42
For the Leader

Mention “Chapter 42” and reactions tend to vary from passing curiosity about what it is to near-apoplexy to builder fever.

Since 10 amendments awaiting a City of Houston Planning Commission decision carry citywide ramifications, let’s take a look inside the pages of Chapter 42.

Just don’t call it the “development ordinance,” city sources said. “Rather, it is one piece of a much larger development regulation structure,” explained Brian Crimmings, chief of staff in the Department of Planning and Development. “It’s the part of our code that establishes the rules on how land can be subdivided or assembled for the purpose of development – it’s a subdivision ordinance. (Unlike a zoning ordinance, a subdivision ordinance does not regulate land use, nor does it regulate building or infrastructure design standards.”)

The city has changed dramatically since the last time the ordinance got an update 14 years ago, Crimmins explained in an email response. About six years of meetings and public dialog led to the current, final stage of the amendment process. “The time is right to make improvements to the ordinance, protect our neighborhoods, and position Houston for the future growth,” he said.

The biggest change to Chapter 42 is how the new measures would play out citywide instead of within Loop 610, which has been the current “urban area” boundary. A portion of it in the Leader News coverage area displays how the 1999 revisions to Chapter 42 touched off redevelopment that increased housing units, particularly townhomes, and related projects. (Examples of re-platted, denser built lots abound in Cottage Grove, the West End, Rice Military and Magnolia Grove, where a townhome-scape continues to replace single-family homes.)

New provisions would allow “greater flexibility” to foster a mix of housing prices within subdivisions and bring about more pedestrian-friendly development by moving buildings closer to the street and shifting their parking to the side or rear, according to PDD materials.

The proposed amendments also establish “optional, city-wide performance standards” for single-family homes, and “reduce building lines” for commercial, retail, and multi-family developments along major thoroughfares with rights-of-way of 80 ft. or less, the ordinance summary said. (

More specifically, the amendments establish a minimum lot size of 3,500 sq. ft.. But they also add standards for “certain single-family residential developments” that reduce the minimum lot size to 1,400 sq. ft. and lot width to 15-ft. Meanwhile, shared driveways would need to meet updated parameters that better accommodate firefighting equipment.

Revisions also attempt to address the higher need for guest parking generated by the higher density that comes from converting larger single-family lots into smaller, multiple-single-family lots. Depending on the number of units built, options include extra parking spaces in the shared driveway or extended parking curbside. (Meanwhile, related amendments to the Public Works & Engineering Infrastructure Design Manual address boosting on-street parallel parking on open ditch streets.)

New provisions also specify acceptable encroachments of 30-inches into the building line from roof eaves, bay windows, balconies, and fireplace chimneys, and 5 ft. into the setback line from open stairways and wheelchair ramps.

The Super Neighborhood Alliance is among the watchdog-and-information groups taking interest in and issue with the amendments as proposed. Its “Top 10 List of Community Concerns” notice sent to the city also carries suggestions. Among them, these excerpts:

* Extend the “urban” area of development in stages and give priority to corridors with transit, declining commercial areas, brown fields, obsolete multi-family tracts and larger vacant areas.
* Improve drainage by “making storm water management and adequate infrastructure an integral part of every project.”
* Adopt street standards designed for all users, from vehicles to pedestrians to parking to handicap accessible. And keep them “unimpeded by obstructions” such as utility poles and random signs.
* Manage solid waste by requiring “sufficient space for bins and pick-up without compromising street, drainage and sidewalks.”

Jane Cahill West is vice president of Super Neighborhood Alliance as well as immediate past president of Super Neighborhood 22, which covers the Washington Corridor-Memorial Park area between Buffalo Bayou and White Oak Bayou. Its neighborhoods were redevelopment’s frontier when Chapter 42 last updated.

“Learn from the empirical evidence of what 14 years of redevelopment has brought us,” she said, rattling off subdivision names.

If there is a silver lining to the current round of proposed amendments, West said, it’s this: “It is bringing all of these organizations together.”

In shaping the built environment, “Chapter 42 doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” she said. “It was never intended to be on its own.” Previous revisions of the ordinance were in tandem with related ones in other areas, such as infrastructure.

At PDD, Crimmins said the open public process means the Planning Commission hears questions that fall outside of Chapter 42 “but are no less important to residents. Thus commissioners and the planning department attempt to answer all questions raised.

West said the Super Neighborhood Alliance strives to have the city “control its own actions.”

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