GALVESTON — All Tom Schwenk wanted was to open a laundromat.
For about a year, Schwenk, a real estate agent with The House Company, has had the building at 802 Broadway up for sale. Recently, the out-of-state owner of the property — which once contained an inkjet printing business — decided to open a coin-operated laundry. That was a solid strategy since the building is on the edge of residential neighborhood.
The only problem? Laundromats — or rather cleaning or laundry self service shops — are not allowed to operate in that part of the city.
The four-block area, which includes about 50 properties, is known to the city’s planning department as the buffer zoning district. That designation was preventing Schwenk from turning the vacant property into an operating business.
“I’ve had it for sale forever,” Schwenk said. “You could have a design studio, but you couldn’t have a design studio where you sold accessories. You could have an art studio; you couldn’t have a gallery.”
A creation of planners past, the buffer zone is one of the most heavily restricted parts of the city. It’s supposed to be a buffer against the creep of beach-related businesses onto Broadway, city officials said. But in reality, the zone, like some others in the city, is seen as an obstacle to development.
City planners intend to change that in the near future.
As part of a historic reworking of land development regulations — know to most as the LDR — the city’s planning commission wants to reduce the number of zoning districts and, in some cases, redefine decades-old policies to reflect the city’s current vision for the future.
The way it is now
The city’s zoning standards now outline 30 different districts.
To city planners, a zoning district defines what types of things can be in different parts of Galveston. If a person wants to build a house or open a business, doing so must be in line with the zoning district’s definition, or the owner must get special permission. Some zoning districts completely prohibit certain uses.
Some of the zones are fairly common. Much of the area south of Broadway is zoned as a General Residence District — a place for most kinds of buildings that people might live in. Most of Harborside Drive is zoned for industrial uses — processing facilities and manufacturing plants. Moving west, large swathes of land are zoned as Planned Development districts, suitable for an equally large number of uses.
But the regulations also contain many inscrutable, redundant or unneeded definitions, officials said.
“Having all of these different uses was just too detail-oriented,” said Joe Rozier, chairman of the city’s planning commission.
There are four different categories for single-family dwellings, and two more for multifamily. There is zoning district specifically for parking lots.
There is a district for resorts and another for recreation. Most of the downtown area is zoned as the Central Business District, expect for the part that’s the Central Plaza District.
There’s a zoning category for water.
The current zoning standards were created in 1968 and have been amended numerous times since, said Rick Vasquez, Galveston’s planning director.
The result of piecemeal change is a mishmash of regulations.
“It’s not uncommon for cities to borrow from other communities and paste those rules on top of their rules,” Vasquez said. “Over time, they just kind of grow, even though they don’t really relate to the community.”
In the proposed land development regulations, the number of zones has been reduced from 30 to 14.
The goal was to create broader definitions that will be less confusing but still help maintain order in the city’s development, Rozier said.
There’s only one kind of multifamily housing district, for example, and only one kind of commercial district. The separate resort and recreation districts will now be categorized as one thing.
Overlay districts created to govern designs on the city’s main corridors — Seawall Boulevard, Broadway and 61st Street — will be eliminated in favor of using other methods to try to keep consistent standards on large swathes of the city. Overlay districts for historic and neighborhood conversation areas will remain, officials said.
Beyond consolidation, the new definitions also contain some novel attempts to create definitions that fit the areas of Galveston that are not strictly one thing or another.
Under the proposed rules, some parts of the city could be redefined as Urban Neighborhood/Neighborhood Commercial Districts.
Vazquez said the goal of those areas would to preserve an aspect of Galveston life that has endured: the corner store.
“If you look at the older part of Galveston, it was a mix of uses,” he said. “People live there, people work there. We’re going to try to create a code that allows for that pattern to carry on into the future.”
Vazquez said the fact planners were working to preserve the cornerstone characteristics of the city was ironic because towns across the country are trying to restore that lost aspect of American life.
“A lot of cities are trying to figure out how to convert their suburban-type communities into these mixed-use traditional-town patterns of development,” Vasquez said. “We already have that.”
The planning commission has not yet set about applying the new definitions. This week, it will begin working on the zoning map, but the process may take months.
The zoning maps will demarcate the city’s plans for the future of an area for decades to come. The process is expected to draw public interest, particularly in where industrial zones abut residential zones.
“We want the community to be as involved as possible and to give us their input,” Rozier said. “This is the most important piece of ordinance or regulation that we’ve tried to tackle in the last 50 years. And it’s going to affect the island for the next 50 years.”
After the planning commission finishes, its draft regulations will be sent to the city council to either approve, amended or send back for more work.
Rozier said he expected the council to begin its direct involvement by late summer.
Meanwhile, the city will continue deal with its current zoning regulations.
Back on Broadway, Schwenk, the real estate agent, is on his way to getting a laundromat opened.
After a six-week process that included hearings before the planning commission and the city council, Schwenk managed to get 802 Broadway changed from a buffer district to a Neighborhood Services district — which allows laundries to operate with a specific-use permit.
Schwenk said the process was easy enough to navigate and the city’s planning department was accommodating. But, he said he looked forward to having a system where such changes would be unnecessary.
“I can see how people say Galveston is a hard place to do business,” Schwenk said. “It is sort of ridiculous”
At a glance
Galveston’s newest zones
Under the Planning Commission’s proposed Land Development Regulations, every zoned area in the city would be categorized under one of the following definitions:
1. Residential, Single Family
Intended to provide for single-family detached dwellings with complementary civic, recreational uses and institutional uses.
2. Residential, General Duplex: Eight-plex
Provides for attached forms of single-family dwellings, such as two-family dwellings (also known as duplexes) and townhomes; limited to eight units.
Intended to provide for multifamily housing developments representing a variety of housing options, including rental apartments, condominiums (owner and renter) and a broader range of institutional residential uses.
4. Urban Neighborhood — Neighborhood Commercial
Intended to accommodate the range and pattern of residential uses found in Galveston’s oldest established Urban Core neighborhoods, together with limited nonresidential uses, such as corner stores, that benefit nearby residents in a neighborhood setting conducive to walking and biking as much as vehicular circulation.
5. Traditional Neighborhood
Intended to promote development that reflects the layout and planning principles of traditional neighborhoods and the historic residential sections of the city of Galveston.
6. Commercial-Mixed Use
Intended to accommodate a wide range of retail, service and office uses while also providing for a variety of housing options.
7. Central Business District
Encompasses much of Galveston’s historic downtown area and is intended to provide for the intensive, mixed-use development pattern found in urban central business districts.
Intended to provide a variety of housing options and tourist-oriented developments for residents and tourists.
9. Industrial, Light
Intended to accommodate a variety of manufacturing uses such as processing, assembling, warehousing, research and development that have fewer off-site impacts such as noise, air pollution and vibrations on adjoining properties.
10. Industrial, Heavy
Intended to accommodate the most intense industrial uses plus certain other activities that require careful location to limit risks to public health and safety.
These designations provide additional rules, usually related to building or design standards, on top of an existing base zone:
11. Planned Unit Development — Overlay
Intended to create mixture of uses, density and infrastructure standards.
12. Historic — Overlay
Encompasses locally designated Galveston Historic Districts and properties designated as Galveston Landmarks.
13. Neighborhood Conservation District — Overlay
Intended to identify property located in a Neighborhood Conservation District, through which additional standards are applied to preserve unique and distinctive neighborhoods in Galveston.
14. Height and Density Development Zone — Overlay
Intended to identify key areas of Galveston located in and subject to the additional site development and design standards.
SOURCE: City of Galveston