Will The Heights Go Wet?
Heights future is at stake as voters decide whether to stay 'Weird & Dry' or 'Evolve and Change'
While the presidential election highlights Tuesday’s election, a local vote could have a profound effect on the future of The Heights. Residents living in the neighborhood’s dry zone are voting to determine whether to overturn the restrictions that have prevented the retail sale of wine, beer, and liquor for off premise consumption in the neighborhood since 1912.
If the vote passes, Texas grocery giant H-E-B has pledged to open a new store at the site of the former Fiesta at Shepherd Drive and 24th Street. The company financed a petition drive to place the issue on Tuesday’s ballot and has been lobbying hard for it to pass through a group called the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition, even as it has also signed a lease to open a store near the Heights on Washington Avenue.
Around 10,000 voters in an area that extends approximately from West 27th Street to the north and White Oak Bayou to the south; and from Oxford in the east to Durham in the west are eligible to decide the issue.
Count Morgan Weber as one of the measure’s most vocal supporters. Together with his business partner Ryan Pera, Weber owns Agricole Hospitality, the company behind acclaimed Heights restaurants Revival Market, Coltivare, and the whiskey-oriented patio bar Eight Row Flint.
“My concern is that there’s a lot of misinformation out there, from the people who are opposing this,” Weber tells CultureMap. “A lot of them are just, like, H-E-B is going to come in. They’re the big guys trying to steamroll the little guy, have their cake and eat it, too, with this property. The reality, in my opinion, is a vote against Prop 1 highly affects small business in a negative way.”
Both Coltivare and Eight Row Flint have private club licenses that allow them to sell alcohol, and Tuesday’s vote won’t change anything for the way restaurants operate in the neighborhood. However, Revival Market stands to benefit if the measure passes, because Weber could begin selling wine there. Weber says that he and Pera converted Revival from a market that primarily sold meat and produce into more of a restaurant after other grocery stores opened nearby, including the Whole Foods on Waugh, a Kroger on Studemont, and an extensive renovation to the Kroger at Shepherd Drive and 11th Street, cut into Revival’s revenues.
“Overnight, we went from selling hundreds of thousands of dollars of meat out of our butcher case to now it’s probably five to eight percent of our gross sales annually. That’s not something to be butt hurt about. It’s just the way it is,” Weber says. "You’re either forced to evolve and change, or you go out of business without being able to sell alcohol here on a retail level. We have customers that come in almost daily. When they get a charcuterie board, they buy a bunch of meat and cheese, (they ask), ‘You guys don’t sell wine, do you?’ Nope. We don’t. We would love to, but we can’t.”
Specifically, Weber says he would like to sell the sort of small production wines served at Coltivare that typically aren’t available for retail purchase. Revival would offer 30 to 40 bottles at any time from producers people might not be familiar with, but that he and Coltivare sommelier Jeb Stuart think customers would enjoy having at home.
A special place to live
While Weber and other business owners are supporting the H-E-B-led effort, a group of Heights residents have organized a group called Keep the Heights dry to urge residents to vote no. Co-founder Ashish Mahendru is a commercial litigator who’s lived in the dry zone with his family since 2002, and he thinks preventing the retail sale of alcohol has helped make the Heights a special to live.
“We are big believers in the Heights and what it stands for in our community, for our city in general, and how it’s a magnet for responsible development and putting a beacon on how historical character and charm is an asset that should be preserved,” Mahendru says. “We stand for protecting the character and the vibe of the Heights, which is why our signs say, 'Keep the Heights Weird & Dry.'Maybe that’s a little bit quirky. We’ve stolen that from Austin. We want to keep the Heights the way it is.”
Mahendru makes two points clear. First, he’s not opposed to H-E-B opening in the neighborhood; second, he isn’t a teetotaler. He worries about the potential ramifications for the neighborhood if the vote passes. The ability to sell alcohol would attract businesses that have shunned the neighborhood due to their inability to sell alcohol, and their arrival could change the neighborhood’s residential feel.
“If you look at the Subway and the Pizza Hut at I-10 and Heights Boulevard, some might argue the best use of that would be to open a (gas station) there and put the (restaurants) inside,” Mahendru says. “I would suggest that is completely disproportion with what Heights Blvd is. That is the crown jewel of the Heights community . . . H-E-B’s off premise use would allow a gas station to come in right behind.”
Weber says that not only would he welcome a gas station — “Then I don’t have to worry about where the fuck I’m going to get gas in the Heights” — but that residential development that’s converted small bungalows into larger homes has already changed the Heights.
“The character of the neighborhood is gone. That’s what no one realizes,” Weber says. “It’s gigantic houses that kind of look historical or bungalows that have been rehabbed, or, because of the historic preservation office, they have 4,000 square feet tacked onto the back: a camelback house, we call it.”
Mahendru acknowledges that economic development has brought larger houses, but he disputes that renovating what he describes as "dilapidated or falling apart" homes has upset the neighborhood’s overall character.
“This isn’t an argument about staying stuck in a time warp from 1912. We’re fully cognizant of where we are in 2016,” he says. "The Heights is coveted because of all the activity. It’s consistent with its different historic character from the rest of Houston.”
Both Mahendru and Weber express confidence their side will prevail, but it will be up to area residents to determine which side wins in Tuesday’s vote.