GALVESTON — Space can be hard to come by on the island’s East End.
Houses often stand mere feet apart, leaving little room for a person or even sunlight to squeeze through.
Those tightly packed houses are part of a bygone era in the island’s development rules, and the neighborhoods they help define would be hard to replicate today without many variances and special permissions.
But as a yearslong reworking of land development regulations nears completion, city planners are raising the possibility that design standards could be relaxed to spur more development in the Historic East End.
“We’ve regulated away this proximity from neighbor to neighbor,” Planning Director Rick Vasquez said, as he looked at a row of tightly grouped houses on Sealy Avenue during a tour of the city last month. “This would not make it in Galveston today. This is fairly dense.”
Design standards dictate such things as how closely one building can be built to another, how much front lawn a house must have, what construction materials must be used and how a building must look from the street.
Ultimately, the standards dictate how a neighborhood looks and feels.
Officials say Galveston’s design standards, developed in the 1960s, have been muddied and complicated by years of changing trends in city planning.
They hope the reworked regulations can be used to preserve Galveston’s traditional neighborhoods, and allow new building in the vein of what was done before.
To drive west on Galveston Island is to travel through the history of the city’s development regulations. The East End is compact and walkable, with businesses — or potential businesses — built into corner buildings. The constraints of space don’t limit the personality of buildings, and East End neighborhoods are replete with touches — ornate balconies and open-air stoops — that don’t fit the character of the rest of the island. They do fit the character of the early 20th century, when the island still had a wide-ranging trolley system and the personal automobile was still a luxury.
For that reason, stores and houses were kept close together.
Moving south and west, the development becomes less compact.
The Cedar Lawn subdivision on 45th Street represents the first departure from Galveston’s traditional land regulations.
Developed in 1926, the neighborhood was designed as an enclave for the Moody family and contains large lawns, curved streets and a mix of architectural styles.
Cedar Lawn’s uniqueness earned it a place in the National Register of Historic Places in 1990. Forms completed by the Texas Historical Commission describe it as a neighborhood that literally “turns its back on the rest of Galveston” because of the way the houses break from the city’s grid pattern.
Looking at the way the city developed after Cedar Lawn, the new neighborhood style didn’t become popular very quickly, Vasquez said.
It took post-World War II suburban development for the city to begin constructing the subdivisions that exist west of 61st Street, such as Colony Park and Campeche Cove.
As the city changed its zoning codes to accommodate those suburban neighborhoods, the rules became restrictive against building East End-style houses, Vasquez said.
“When Galveston was first built, there obviously were not mandatory setbacks,” Vasquez said. “People would kind of follow their neighbor, so you would have some urban form take place just based on practice.”
With regulatory changes, Vasquez said he hoped developers would be interested in investing in areas that had been too limited by density restrictions. The goal now is to preserve those “urban forms,” with rules that don’t quash creativity or encourage homogeneity.
“You don’t see people walking through here taking pictures,” Vazquez said, while driving through a West End subdivision. “I think that if the codes allow it to happen, people will express themselves through their architecture.”
Design standard drafts show that in some areas of the city, requirements about how much space must be left between two buildings could be reduced to 5 feet or less. Current standards mostly require 5-foot minimums for most new houses, meaning the space between dwellings must be at least 10 feet.
One note in the proposed changes shows what planners are trying to achieve.
“Compatibility is not meant to be achieved through uniformity, but through the use or variations in building elements to achieve individual building identity,” the document says.
Vasquez points to examples where houses, including some north of Broadway destroyed by Hurricane Ike, were rebuilt in ways that didn’t fit with the traditional neighborhood because of zoning constraints. They might, for instance, have pillars in the shape of pyramids or porches with enclosed sides.
Changing aesthetics is not the only reason the city’s design standards have changed. Other concerns, including those about the public safety aspect of building density, would likely have to be addressed before any changes are finalized
Fire Marshal Gilbert Robinson said the fire department had not yet been consulted on any proposed design standard changes. The fire marshal’s office must approve construction plans before something is built, and can order changes to the plans on the basis of public safety.
“We do look at the protection and the fire rating from building to building, so that if you do have a fire in one building, it doesn’t spread to another,” Robinson said. “Plus, you need to allow the firefighters to get to the back of the house.”
“The fire department definitely has concerns about setback regulations,” Robinson said.
Contact reporter John Wayne Ferguson at 409-683-5226 or firstname.lastname@example.org.