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Twinkling red Christmas lights surround exposed pipes that line Onion Creek Coffeehouse in the Heights. There's a comfortable lounge where patrons sit on overstuffed chairs and flip through old Rolling Stones and abandoned copies of The New York Times.The menu behind the wide, shiny counter offers sandwiches in addition to a wide selection of wine and beer, including a Fat Bastard red that owner Gary Mosely especially enjoys.
"I moved to the Heights from Montrose, and I was used to life," says Mosely, a father of one and a lifelong Houstonian, who opened the establishment six months ago. "When I got over here it was nothing but antique stores." Onion Creek, he says, was an attempt to bring an "upscale" restaurant to this part of the Heights.
But that attempt brought on a flurry of name-calling and arguments between Mosely and two local homeowners, who were backed up by the Houston Heights Association -- the 30-year-old nonprofit that says its primary purpose is revitalizing and maintaining the unique feel of the historic district.
At the heart of the fight was the dispute over a late-night permit that would allow Mosely to sell beer and wine from midnight until 2 a.m. In February, after nearly three years of collecting petitions from their respective supporters and scheduling hearings before County Judge Robert Eckels, Mosely, the homeowners and the HHA finally reached an agreement on the permit. In March, Onion Creek was at last able to sell alcohol after midnight.
But for Mosely, the fight still leaves a sting. The black restaurateur even wonders out loud if his color had something to do with it -- association members say that's blatantly untrue. What's more important, Mosely adds, the HHA's tactics are representative of a greater plan to regulate the feel of the Heights with an iron fist.
"The Heights association has taken it upon themselves as almost like God," says Mosely. "They run businesses out of the neighborhood. HPD, TABC, they regulate. But this wasn't even the Houston Heights Association's business."
When Mosely first checked out 3106 White Oak Drive in 1999 as a potential home for Onion Creek, he was so disgusted with what he saw that he took photographs to document it. The run-down white and red building had been empty since housing the Hoi Polloi club in 1994. Vagrants and prostitutes frequented the area and the liquor store 15 feet away. Gang graffiti marked the eyesore, and there were piles of feces in the overgrown grass.
Anything, thought Mosely, would be better than this.
But Onion Creek, named after a stream in Mosely's much-loved Austin, would be more than just a replacement for a bad site. Mosely planned to put a half-million dollars into buying the land and constructing a laid-back yet high-quality restaurant.
When Mosely began visiting the site with his architect in the fall of 2000, neighbors were curious. He says he was up-front with them about wanting the late-night beer and wine permit, and that they were even excited that Mosely was going to help revitalize the block.
But Paul Gilford, who had property behind the site, and Michael Casella, a landowner next door, soon launched an offensive against the cafe's plans. (Casella has since moved to Florida, and Gilford would not return phone calls for this story.)
The residents approached Allan Tiller, then-president of the HHA, in their fight against the permit. In a letter of opposition to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, Tiller wrote, "A quiet residential neighborhood is the wrong place for a late night outdoor music venue."
Casella started a campaign with petitions that stated, "This move by Onion Creek can only result in lower property values and loss of rental incomes for the area." Mosely says the attacks went beyond the permit issue -- they assailed the very idea of Onion Creek.
"The bottom line is they went and wrote something bad about me and they didn't even know me," says Mosely. He insists he never had plans to be anything like Fitzgerald's, a nearby club that is a regular source of loud noise until 2 a.m. At most, he wanted to have soft music piped onto the deck. That, says Mosely, would have to be better than prostitutes and vagrants relieving themselves in public.
Despite Mosely's efforts, Judge Eckels denied the late-night permit in May 2001.
Tiller maintains that the association never tried to railroad Mosely's business. It was just concerned with the ramifications of one more place on White Oak serving alcohol late at night.
"I really can't see what all the melodrama is about," says Tiller. "We said we would not object to a beer and wine permit that lasted until midnight. We had no objection at all."
Tiller says the HHA didn't even object to the permit if Mosely had accepted their proposed 2000 agreement to honor various neighbor-friendly requests, such as no bright lighting or amplified outdoor music. Mosely refused, saying he didn't understand why his business had to be singled out.
It took more than two years of debate with Casella, Gilford and the HHA before Mosely finally struck a deal and got his permit.
While the battle appears to be over, it is another example of the clashes between businesses and residences in the rapidly gentrifying Heights area.
Mark Van Doren is a building designer with office space near Onion Creek. He says he visits the cafe four times a day for espresso, and his amped-up voice doesn't cast doubt on that claim.
"I think some members of the HHA are assholes make it childish assholes," says Van Doren, himself a member of the association's land use committee. He notes that the Heights has several business-oriented streets, and behind every one is a residential area. "If you're a dumbass and build your house on a commercial street, shame on you. That's your fault."
Van Doren, who has designed several neighborhood buildings, including the Yale Street Lofts, argues that the HHA is fanatical about preserving classic Heights bungalows at the expense of progress. He says the group recently balked at a proposed Starbucks in a building Van Doren was designing near 19th and Yale, and that Starbucks got scared and fled.
Echoing Van Doren's words is Waverly Nolley, an attorney and developer who has been building in the Heights since 1989. Roughly 30 of his bright-colored neo-Victorian homes can be spotted throughout the neighborhood. Nolley says the HHA has been trying to stall construction on his property at 540 Heights Boulevard by fighting building permits.
Nolley, who is black, says, "Everything the association does is based on personal preference. It's an issue of isolation and discrimination."
But HHA president Byron Pettit, a soft-spoken Heights resident since 1989, says the group has no fascist agendas. It wants to embrace different ethnic groups, not discriminate against them, he says.
"I say, if you want diversity, come to the Heights," says Pettit. He argues that in a city with no zoning and in an area as historic as the Heights (more than 100 sites have received historical designation), the association must protect the feel of the community. Several great homes have been lost; the unique Cooley mansion was demolished in the mid-'60s.
The association isn't anti-Starbucks, Pettit says. "But to have one on every corner of Heights Boulevard, yes, [we're against that]."
Pettit says he received hate e-mails from supporters of Onion Creek, and that the HHA was simply trying to mediate between Mosely and homeowners, who had no way of knowing what the establishment would be like before it opened.
"Mr. Mosely took a horrible-looking building and now, from the exterior, it looks great," he says. "But if a bar that's going to stay open until 2 a.m. was going to open right next to your house, how would you feel?"
Mosely, however, remains unconvinced. At times, he doesn't seem to want to give up the larger war.
"I want the people in the community to wake up and look around," he says. "We have nothing over here, why is that? There's a reason for that: the association and how they do business in this neighborhood."