A dispute pitting local construction codes against diplomatic security concerns is unfolding in Houston. An ongoing tussle over a 10-foot building line variance stands between the Saudi Arabia Royal Consulate and the City of Houston’s Planning and Development department. At the December 18, 2014, meeting, planning commissioners voted to deny the variance request after listening to staff and a representative speak on behalf of the consulate.
City planners presented their recommendations to deny the 10-foot building line for two accessory structures: guardhouses for the main consulate building fronting Wilcrest. The main building is sited 50 feet into the lot as required by deed restrictions. The city is asking for a 25-foot building line along the major thoroughfare as the municipal code stipulates.
“Staff is not in support of the requested variance,” said Dipti Mathur, a planner leader for the planning department. Mathur described the suburban parcel, between Westheimer and Richmond in the commercial Westchase district, as 339-foot-wide-by-450-foot-long. “It has enough room to accommodate all the proposed activities and meet all the ordinance requirements if the applicant designed the site appropriately,” said Mathur.
Nichole Bowden of South Texas Surveying, the firm handling the replatting, spoke before the planning commissioners to state the consulate’s position. “This is a royal consulate. Security is of the utmost importance. We are respectfully requesting that you reconsider staff’s recommendation to deny this variance,” said Bowden. Bowden elaborated to say the two guard posts are less than 250 square feet each and were designed to prevent the general public from accessing the grounds. She also stated that South Texas met with the local Management District, which gave them the support for the 10-foot building line for the guardhouse.
Commissioner James Jard asked what would happen if the variance for the building line alteration was denied, as well as the landscape variance for trees not planted in the public right of way? Bowden deferred to the design firm for the consulate, Houston-based Studio Red Architects, which did not have a representative prepared to speak. She did state that she had been advised there would likely be another extensive review and approval process that also includes clearance from Washington, D.C.
Mathur also stated the city planners and engineers have had multiple meetings to thoroughly discuss the issues with the consulate planning team and that the hardship is “self-imposed” and if the variance was granted, it would be “inconsistent public policy.”
The design of the consulate compound, by Studio Red, which was selected in 2013 after winning a 2011 design competition, includes guardhouses integrated into a water feature at the entry and exit, the main consulate office building, a housing block as well as villas dotting one perimeter. The landscape plan includes palm trees and a pool inside the compound.
Chairman Mark Kilkenny asked for a motion; a move to support staff’s position to deny both building and landscape variances was made by commissioner Jard and seconded by commissioner Paul Nelson. A notice sign remained posted on the grassy lot days after the hearing with no immediate signs of construction activity.
This variance case poses a conundrum to all involved from the city planners and commissioners to the surveyors, architects, client, and public: does a building have diplomatic immunity to local ordinances if it is deemed international soil? Does this building adhere to local jurisdictional codes and/or international consular standards where security is cited as a priority?
In the post September 11 era of construction, planning for terror attacks has become part of the architecture, engineering, and building industries, but the city of Houston has made it clear that adherence to its policies for this case and future cases means no alteration to the building line.