Houston Heights Voters Throw Out Century-Old Alcohol Sales Ban [UPDATED]

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Houston Heights residents on Tuesday were leaning heavily toward tossing the neighborhood's century-old prohibition on alcohol sales. As of 10 p.m. Tuesday evening, 65 percent of voters supported Proposition 1, with 60 percent of ballots tallied.

The move paves the way for a new H-E-B store at 23rd and Shepherd. The Texas grocery giant backed a campaign urging voters to vote yes on Proposition 1, which asked if stores should be permitted to sell alcoholic beverages so long as they are consumed off-premises.

Houston Heights, which was its own city until Houston annexed the neighborhood, had banned alcohol sales since 1912. The passage of Proposition 1 does not lift the neighborhood's ban on on-premise alcohol consumption, though restaurants have long skirted that law by forming private "drinking clubs."

After collecting the required signatures on a petition this summer to force the question onto the November ballot, a citizen group called the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition ramped up its campaign in support of Proposition 1. They argued that the inability of grocery stores to sell alcohol — which has a higher profit margin than other goods — discourages grocery chains from investing in the Heights.

The group peppered the Heights with red, white and blue lawn signs in favor of the proposition. Even H-E-B President Scott McClelland canvassed the Heights, going door-to-door in the days leading up to the vote.

Steve Reilley, a member of the coalition, was confident heading into Election Day that the proposition would pass. Reilley said the Heights, which is home to several apartment complexes that will soon be completed, badly needs more grocery options — especially since the Fiesta grocery store closed at 23rd and Shepherd in March. The lot presently sits vacant, abutted by recently built apartments and town homes.

Reilley said spent much of his time stumping for Proposition 1 by assuaging his neighbors' concerns that allowing alcohol sales would lead to an explosion of commercial development in the largely residential neighborhood.

"We continually have to explain that this does not permit the sale of liquor," Reilley said. "This will not allow liquor stores in the Heights, it will not allow bars in the Heights... There are a lot of allegations that this will open up residential areas to chain restaurants, and that's not true." 

Bill Baldwin, a real estate agent and opponent of Proposition 1, disagrees. While he agrees with Reilley that the Heights needs more grocery options, he worries H-E-B is far from the only large company clamoring for a foothold in the neighborhood.

"I'm not a fearmonger, but my observation on real estate is...if this passes pretty easily, the restaurant and bar associations will file a petition for restaurants to no longer be private clubs, which opens [the Heights] up to greater players," Baldwin said. "It would rapid-fire change the neighborhood."

Baldwin noted that just south of the neighborhood's boundaries at I-10 at Yale, development has bloomed to include a Sprouts, a Walmart and several strip malls. With Houston's lack of formal zoning laws, Baldwin said the ban on alcohol sales in the Heights is a unique safeguard against undesirable development.

While he was optimistic Tuesday afternoon about Proposition 1's defeat, Baldwin conceded that supporters of the ballot item had far greater resources. Still, he hopes Heights residents will think carefully about how to best preserve the neighborhood for the future.

"I felt it was a battle worth fighting to protect the neighborhood the best way we could," Baldwin said.

Update, November 9, 5:56 a.m.: With 100 percent of votes counted, Proposition 1 passed 66 percent to 34 percent. A total of 5,348 voted in the neighborhood, which has about 10,000 voters.

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