Street Fight

An explosion of nightlife is pitting neighbor against neighbor in the Richmond-Greenbriar area

Loud music. Noisy drunks. Beer bottles, pools of urine, an occasional undergarment left behind after a night of carousing.

Joanna Pasternak figures that such spillover from The Pig "Live," a bar that's catty-corner to the backyard of her home in the 2100 block of Colquitt, is just part of the price she pays to enjoy life inside the Loop.

James Thomas, who lives in the 2200 block of Colquitt, across Greenbriar from Pasternak, also appreciates the diversity of their area, where the broad-lawned subdivisions seamlessly converge with the nearby dining, drinking and shopping establishments to link two desirable worlds within walking distance.

But for Thomas, who is president of the Colquitt Court Civic Club, it was one thing to live with The Pig "Live." It became quite another to endure the ruckus that's accompanied the opening of nearly a dozen new bars and restaurants in the Richmond-Greenbriar area in the past few years. The proliferation of bistros -- six nightspots have opened in just the last five months -- produced a nightly deluge of the young and hip, whose first order of business before disappearing into the noisy neon Mecca was to cruise the surrounding neighborhoods for a place to park.

In late November, Thomas attended a meeting of the Upper Kirby District Association, an umbrella organization of some 150 businesses and 17 civic clubs in the bustling area. Before an audience that included Councilmembers Martha Wong and John Kelley and representatives from the city's Traffic and Transportation Department, Thomas joined other residents to ask that something be done to stem the motorized tide that was overwhelming their neighborhood.

And to everyone's amazement, something was.
"It was proposed that they put up No Parking signs on both sides of the street on these streets," Thomas explains. "And, lo and behold, the city acted much more quickly than we realized."

And much more quickly than many residents in the 2100 blocks of Colquitt and West Main would have preferred. Especially Pasternak. She and husband Alan awoke on December 28 to the sight of city workers erecting signs banning all parking on their street between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. The new rules presented immediate problems.

"We had a New Year's Eve party, and it was a disaster," Pasternak recalls. "We had to have people take turns standing outside all night to keep the wrecker drivers from towing away our cars."

Thus began the Great Sign Debate, an at-times bilious dispute between residents in the 2100 and 2200 blocks of Colquitt and West Main, which are at the epicenter of the nightlife explosion in the area. On the one side are Thomas and his allies, who say they were only acting to improve the neighborhood. On the other are their neighbors, like the Pasternaks, who argue that they were never consulted about the signs and, if they had been, would have objected to them being put up.

An underlying theme of the dispute -- one perhaps more central than who can park where and when -- is how residents are coping with the encroachment of commercial activity in the tight quarters of Houston's inner-city neighborhoods. Thomas and Pasternak have differing opinions on that issue as well. Thomas says the intrusion of those seeking good times in his neighborhood had become a burden he and his neighbors could no longer bear. Pasternak believes the variety of life inside the Loop far outweighs the occasional inconvenience.

"It's kind of what we like about it, and we've learned to deal with it," says Pasternak, who teaches gifted third-graders for the Houston Independent School District. "If you want another kind of life, move to Kingwood."

It is just such an aversion to outlying planned communities like Kingwood and other relatively pallid environs that continues to make life inside the Loop so appealing for many young professionals. But according to Stephen Harsin, a principal planner for the Planning and Development Department, the city is discovering it is ill-prepared to deal with the collision course on which a growing number of inner-city residents and businesses find themselves.

"It's really not all that unique a problem," says Harsin. "What you have is this influx of bars and restaurants that cater to late-night crowds, and the neighborhoods are getting tired of it."

Harsin says that because the city didn't institute a parking ordinance until 1989 -- and then included a grandfather clause that exempts many establishments -- the number of available parking spaces has failed to keep pace with the number of people who want them. In some areas, he says, there are barely enough spaces to accommodate the people who work there. That forces patrons and customers into the surrounding neighborhoods to hunt down parking.

Unfortunately, the city's transportation department has a backlog of requests from neighborhoods seeking a Neighborhood Traffic Study to help develop permanent solutions to the problem. In the meantime, one stop-gap measure the city is relying on a lot these days, Harsin says, is the placement of No Parking signs in an attempt to cut down on traffic in residential areas.

"That way the residents don't have to worry about people parking in front of their homes," he says. "The only problem is they can't park, either."

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