GALVESTON — A group of Galveston neighborhood associations is pushing a plan that they say would “save” Galveston’s beaches from hotel development.
Called “South Beach, Galveston,” the plan is a vision of a redeveloped Stewart Beach area that takes cues from places such as Miami’s South Beach, California’s Venice Beach and Florida’s Key West. It would expand the Stewart Beach area and create landscaped areas, boardwalks and other amenities.
The plan, said District 3 City Councilman Ralph McMorris, would begin by limiting the height to which buildings could be built on the seaward side of Seawall Boulevard, and, potentially, use city economic development money to prevent construction in certain areas by purchasing properties.
“When you look at these other beach areas, they do not have buildings or any structures except maybe some low-rise stuff that’s in keeping with the beach nature,” McMorris said.
The idea was developed by a group of residents from the East End, the university area, Fish Village, Emerald by the Sea and San Jacinto neighborhoods.
The proposal has not been presented at any public meetings, though McMorris did pass out a copy of the presentation to council members last Thursday. It has been pitched to various community groups.
The issue is apparently a pushback against recent changes made to zoning rules on plats on the seaward side of Seawall Boulevard.
In January, the City Council approved a change in the zoning category to plats on the beach side of Seawall Boulevard near its intersection with Broadway. The change would allow buildings to be constructed up to five stories without needing special permission, or higher if a developer could obtain a permit from the city.
The council’s decision prompted another property owner in the area to ask for and receive the same change.
The developers said the zoning change would allow for more development options, specifically the construction of taller hotels.
“Let the free market develop itself,” said Benny Davis, the first property owner to request the zoning change for land at 517 Seawall Blvd. “What guarantee is there that money will come rushing in to develop the East End like some of the beaches that he talks about?”
But McMorris contends that any hotel construction south of the seawall would have an opposite effect and discourage building in other areas on the land side of Seawall that no longer have a “front row” guarantee. He said that the guarantee that things could not be built south of the seawall could jump-start construction north of it.
“What would change is the assurance that they would be on the front row,” McMorris said. “If something is built in front of them, they’d no longer have a beautiful view. They’d actually be damaged.”
There are no developments planned south of the seawall, but political developments around the city may make the issue ripe for discussion.
McMorris said that we would like to see the proposed policy integrated in the land development regulations being considered by the city’s planning commission that are expected to be approved this fall. Draft copies of the regulations indicate that land on the seaward side of Broadway would be changed to allow for taller buildings, but no final decision has been made.
McMorris said he would oppose regulations that increase building height.
Park Board Executive Director Kelly de Schaun said the group’s master plan process is limited to the Stewart Beach and East Beach parks, and does not intend to influence the future of private land that borders the beach park.
“I know that they are concerned about height and density around Stewart Beach,” de Schaun said. “Our planning efforts do not dictate the areas outside of our immediate jurisdiction.”
De Schaun said McMorris and his supporters had been invited to present their ideas to the group managing the planning project. The first draft of that master plan is expected to be presented to the Park Board on Aug. 5.
With policy hurdles cleared, McMorris said the next step would be for the city to begin buying private property with the intention of turning it into a world-class beach.
Though no official study on the idea has been done, McMorris said that he believes guaranteeing the sanctity of the beaches would create more tourism opportunities, and ultimately more money, than new hotels in that area would.
“It’s a nice piece of property,” McMorris said. “It’s a natural beach area that could, if properly managed, could really be a real asset to the city.”