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Houston's restaurant community fights City Hall on proposed changes in parking ordinance

Poll_Astrodome Parking Lot
lower westheimer
The lower Westheimer strip, one of the areas where the city is concerned about a lack of parking. Courtesy of groovehouse

The City of Houston Planning Committee parking ordinance hearing was not the first municipal meeting I've attended, but it was the first that I got a Facebook invitation to.

Anvil's Bobby Heugel and Kevin Floyd have organized action in opposition to some of the proposed parking changes they say will hurt local businesses, and members of the local restaurant and bar community came out to the meeting en masse to support them, creating a standing-room-only crowd at the City Hall Annex.

Among the proposed changes are a 20 percent increase in the number of required parking spaces for restaurants (to 10 per 1,000 square feet) and a 40 percent increase for bars (to 14 for the same area).

 "The identity of what the restaurant or bar is in the city of Houston is changing dramatically," said Heugel. "It is no longer a large space attempting to fill people from the suburbs." 

Many, including Greater Houston Restaurant Association representative Rachel Quan, also expressed reservations about changes in policy regarding leased off-site property, namely that off-site parking leases must be at a minimum of five years and that if a business loses its parking lease, it could have its certificate of occupancy revoked by the city after 90 days.

"Oftentimes you're going to put your business together with multiple different landlords, so you might have one for your building and one for your parking lot, and the ability to get those to gel is a lot of times impossible," said Floyd.

"By tying a timeframe to off-site parking in the lease, what you set up is a system where you have a business that's running fine for five years, generating revenue, creating jobs, and all of a sudden the parking lot gets sold, the landlord changes and it's impossible to renew that lease. By that point of time you have people come to be dependent on that business and all of a sudden you have the ability to eliminate that business. I think that sets a dangerous precedent."

"The identity of what the restaurant or bar is in the city of Houston is changing dramatically," said Heugel, speaking after his business partner. "It is no longer a large space attempting to fill people from the suburbs. It is a localized restaurant movement that prefers to buy local, that is the first to show up when there is a need in society, whether it's the wildlife fires or the Houston Food Bank. ... I think that we're finally at a point, as a smaller, independent restaurant community, where we've had enough. ... What this is is really an assault on the smaller independent restaurant."

Heugel's passionate comments were received with a round of applause from the audience, which included Morgan Weber of Revival Market, Jason Gould, Ryan Rouse of Grand Prize Bar, John Sheely of Mockingbird Bistro, Seth Seigel-Gardner of Pilot Light Group, Underbelly's Chris Shepherd, Josh Martinez of food truck The Modular, and 13 Celsius' Mike Sammons.

"The problem always remains, which is as much as we want to encourage business, the No. 1 thing that we hear is,  'You've got a great restaurant that you planned on being small, suddenly you add a patio and we're happy that you're doing business but suddenly all your patrons are parking throughout the neighborhoods.' ...We're trying to find a balance. We're trying to give opportunities that are basically waivers to the ordinance as it stands, while at the same time while taking into consideration the people who surround you," said planning commission vice chair Sonny Garza.

Many speakers proposed solutions to parking issues that invoke New Urbanism principles like increased public transportation, more parking for bicycles and pedestrian-friendly zones. But as one planning commission member pointed out, "I haven't seen a lot of people getting off the bus and heading to El Real."

Members of the planning commission seemed receptive to suggestions, even asking some speakers to submit details of their proposals and asking that many advocating come more regularly to the meetings, where the crowds generally complain about a lack of parking and any variances granted.

The meeting overall had a polite and respectful vibe, and the planning commission will file their final recommendations with city council in December.

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