Staff editorial: Proposed high-rise not worthy of attention

When Mayor Bill White vows to "use any appropriate power under law to alter the proposed project as currently planned," readers may be led to believe he’s talking about something deathly serious. But this is not related to his campaign to shut down crooked landlords in lower-income neighborhoods, nor is it about preventing the destruction of historic areas of the inner city.

Rather, it concerns a proposed 23-story high-rise in the affluent Rice University area that critics allege will tarnish the neighborhood’s idyllic charm while creating significant traffic problems for the area.

The intended mixed-use high-rise, slated for 1717 Bissonnet St. at the intersection with Ashby Street, will tower 266 feet above the surrounding neighborhood – about four stories taller than the long-lamented Dungeon Drop ride Houstonians came to love at Six Flags AstroWorld – and feature more than 400 parking spots for its residents and visitors.

The campaign opposing construction has been boisterous, involving hundreds of protestors, three city council members and a caricature of the high-rise that comes off as kind of cute in a Where the Wild Things Are kind of way.

About 300 people protested the high-rise on Wednesday -†more than three times the number that picketed the Chinese Consulate in response to Myanmar’s brutal crackdown on unarmed demonstrators. Nearly 100 people attended a city council meeting on Oct. 2 to support the anti-high-rise cause. If only that many citizens cared enough about most city council issues to get so involved.

While their efforts, as adamant as they have been, must be admired, one can’t help but question the cause’s relevancy.

Uproar of this level, and more importantly, political clout, has not manifested for protection of the River Oaks Shopping Center, for the preservation of Freedmen’s Town nor did it occur when The Center Serving Persons with Mental Retardation was on the chopping block. Something is fundamentally wrong here.

Granted, the high-rise will undoubtedly inject greater amounts of traffic into an already saturated area, but where in Houston is this not the case? As the city grows, traffic will inevitably worsen. The entire point of Metro’s light-rail system is to stymie this flood. Gentrification and high-rise development is occurring in all areas of the city, and for better or for worse there will be spikes in traffic in many areas.

Initial traffic analysis conducted by the developers and at first accepted by city officials have been rejected by the tower’s opponents despite the lack of a follow-up study. It would be prudent for further research to be conducted before a conclusion is reached, and protestors are presumptuous when they attack the plans without substantive evidence of their own.

Critics also claim that the development’s layout will make it a firetrap, virtually inaccessible to emergency workers. While this is certainly a valid concern, this should not warrant a cry for halted development. Before enlisting allies to call for the scrapping of the building, activists should work with city fire officials and the developers to ensure that the structure is safe and sound. This should be the first priority before boycotting the tower outright. Intense study and reason can be wonderful assets.

The tower will be an eyesore, for sure, but has that ever impeded development in this great, sprawling city? Hardly. In fact, being an eyesore seems to be a condition for construction in this patchwork city. A drive down Interstate 45 to spot Houston’s bizarre attempts at putting art along highways is a case in point.

Aesthetic unpleasantness is also unlikely to prevent Weingarten, Inc. from someday demolishing the Landmark River Oaks Theatre in favor of injecting another chain bookstore into the Montrose and Upper Kirby area. Maybe it will even include a Starbucks – three for one intersection has to be some kind of record. Where is city council’s opposition to this travesty?

In the end, the development will likely occur regardless of the noble opposition’s best efforts to the contrary. Ideally, protestors and other Houstonians will retain this as a valuable lesson of what happens in the absence of a cohesive urban planning policy.

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