A proposed city ordinance aimed to bring higher quality hotels to the island will revive conversation about height and density rules on Seawall Boulevard, a sore subject among many island residents.
Galveston City Council on Thursday voted 5-2 to have the planning commission review a draft ordinance that would require hotels on parts of the beach front street to have certain amenities, such as restaurants or hot tubs. Another part of the ordinance would allow the hotels to obtain height and density waivers as an incentive to build on the island.
“There was a recognition that we have some hotels that are being built that are probably not the highest and best use for bringing in folks,” city planning and development Director Tim Tietjens said at a Thursday council workshop.
“The other side of that discussion was when you require certain amenities to be provided in a hotel setting, the recognition there is obviously that these amenities can only be provided if the hotel operators can still make a profit,” Tietjens said. “They’re not going to make a profit if those hotel amenities are in lieu of a certain number of rooms they have to have.”
The ordinance is still far from being approved. The planning commission held two public hearings in a workshop on the issue and heard more than an hour of comments from residents, planning commission officials said.
Eventually, the planning commission asked city council if the ordinance should be a priority. Councilman Frank Maceo, a District 3 representative who wrote the hotel ordinance, said that the planning commission needed the council’s backing before moving forward.
“Planning didn’t know if council was going to be supportive of anything they put forward,” Maceo said.
Two council members voted against sending the ordinance to the planning commission for review.
Councilwoman Amy Bly, District 1, voted against and said in a council workshop Thursday that the ordinance didn’t seem like a good use of the council or the commission’s time.
“We have a lot of hotels already,” Bly said. “We hear about them having a hard time trying to fill hotel rooms.
“It’s kind of counterintuitive.”
Councilman Craig Brown, District 2, said he voted against the referral to the planning commission because of the height and density waiver. Those rules, which passed in 2008, took more than a year to get sorted out and will likely be the most contentious point in Maceo’s ordinance.
“This community spent over a year coming together on that height and density,” Brown said at the workshop. “My district is fairly clear, or at least they have been to me, that they are not in support of going higher on the seawall.”
Current rules prevent high-rises on Seawall Boulevard, or anything higher than eight stories, or 105 feet, said Catherine Gorman, assistant director of the planning and development division.
Some people are willing to build parking garages on Seawall Boulevard but want to be able to make their money back by building something above it, City Manager Brian Maxwell said.
“It’s important in discussion with the planning commission that there be some discussion, if a seawall property wants to provide ‘x’ number of parking spaces in a garage type structure that you allow some change to allow them to do something,” Maxwell said. “Otherwise they get capped out and they can’t get enough rooms to do what they want to do.”
The benefits, such as more parking on Seawall Boulevard, higher standards for hotels and the possibility of restrooms and showers in the parking garages, outweigh the negatives, Maceo said.
“A lot of the arguments against are very emotional,” Maceo said.
Most council members agreed that some sort of standard for hotels on Seawall Boulevard would be good, however — especially a standard requiring restaurants. Councilwoman Carolyn Sunseri, District 6, mentioned a building boom of hotels near 89th Street with a lack of food nearby.
“We don’t have restaurants on the West End,” Sunseri said. “That is something we need to look at. I think a restaurant component needs to be included somehow because you’ve got so many little hotels right there in that one area but no place for them to go eat.”
If the planning commission strikes the ordinance down, that’s OK, Maceo said. But the “consequences” of a waiver on height and density on the seawall might not be so bad, he said.
“We’re not so much opening floodgates as much as unlocking a door,” Maceo said. “It’s not going to automatically bring high value tourists to Galveston, but it’s going to start changing the image of Galveston.”