A handful of folks who live next to the popular River Oaks eatery Corner Table say the restaurant's customers are crowding the streets with parked cars because the restaurant doesn't have enough parking spots -- in violation of the city parking ordinance.
Sure, this might be one of those issues to file under "First World Problems," but our journey into the labyrinthine world of parking codes proved somewhat eye-opening: It is possible for a restaurant to flout the ordinance without any consequence.
Here's the deal: The building containing the restaurant, located at 2736 Virginia, is owned by a Dallas-based trust. But city planning officials have been working with designers hired by the restaurant's owner, Darla Lexington, to come up with a plan to meet the parking code.
If you ever want to find a reason to jump off the bridge, we suggest examining the nooks and crannies of the parking ordinance, which of course can't just be a simple thing. There are exceptions for free-standing restaurants; there are exceptions for whether you'll put in bicycle stands.
There's also a grandfather clause, and leeway can be given to new owners who inherited problems from previous owners -- such as owners who changed a building's footprint without approval, which is what all sides in this agree happened in the instance of 2736 Virginia.
And then there are variances -- a pass to work around the code -- that has to be agreed upon by a star chamber of planning commissioners. These people hear testimony. About parking.
We were first made aware of Corner Table's non-compliance by a guy named Gary Ruby, who lives nearby the restaurant, and who has spent an incredible amount of time over the last four years trying to find out why Lexington, and the operators of previous restaurants in that space, have been able to stay out of compliance.
Ruby and fellow Ryan Morris have been emailing City Councilwoman Ellen Cohen's chief of staff Dave Bonem, and a city planning official named Jennifer Ostlind. Similar to our experience, Ostlind seemed very responsive to the men's concerns, whereas Bonem seemed annoyed. Which we understand, because, let's face it, who wants to hear a coupla dudes bitch about parking?
Bonem told Ruby in a December 2013 email that "Corner Table will be submitting an amended plan to the Planning Department. They will need to increase parking for the space in violation, or not use the space. Once that plan is approved, it will be accessible to the Public, via TPIA [the state open records law]....My suggestion to you and your neighbors is to reach out to the owners of Corner Table and request a seat at the table when they are formulating their amended plan. Unfortunately, neither the City of Houston nor our office can force the owners of Corner Table to participate in discussions with the community."
More on Cohen's office in a bit.
Ostlind told us in December that Craig Garcia of Gage Design, the dude Lexington put in charge of solving the problem, had been very cooperative. She told us back then that Garcia was getting ready to submit a plan in mid-January, which would hopefully be approved by the close of the month.
Back then, Garcia told us likewise. Like Ostlind, he explained all the different calculations and contemplations and codicils ensconced in the city parking ordinance. Both Ostlind and Garcia told us that, while it may look easy from the outside, making sure a restaurant has enough parking spaces is akin to moving a mountain. But Garcia told us he was closing in on a solution.
That didn't happen.
When we caught up with Garcia earlier this month, his story changed. He told us that there was in fact no parking problem. He told us that the heavy street parking that Ruby and Morris complained of was not the doing of Corner Table clientele, because most diners valet parked in a church parking lot 600 feet away.
Garcia told us that all he needed from the city was a variance to allow the continued use of the church parking, as it had been used for years without a hitch. He told us Ostlind would confirm all of this.
We were floored. Imagine -- this whole time, there was simply no parking problem, and Ruby and Morris were full of baloney. Then what was the big deal? Why was Dave Bonem telling Ruby to file an open records act for a forthcoming plan when, according to Garcia, there wasn't a freaking plan?
We emailed Bonem a couple of times but never heard back. That's how much of a big deal Bonem is. But we got the next-best thing -- the City Councilwoman herself.
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"I'm pushing the Planning Department to encourage the restaurant to get their plan in as soon as possible -- whether that's in the next month or two, I can't say," she told us. She told us that she hoped for a resolution "in the near future." When we asked what that meant she said, "Whatever the near future means...the near feature should be a month or two. They should be able to get their first draft in."
We're not sure what that meant, because Garcia told us there was no need for a first draft. Because there was no problem.
Morris told us in an email, "To date, we have not been kept abreast of the ongoing discussion between the city and the Corner Table. If the City is not enforcing their own rules for the Corner [T]able, then it stands to reason that the City is not enforcing the rules to protect other neighborhoods who have been impacted by the change in ownership of bars, clubs, restaurants who take advantage of the grandfather clause protection but violate the intent of the law by changing the footprint."
Lexington did not personally respond to our requests for comment, but her assistant told us we'd be hearing from General Manager Bob Myers. We'll update when we hear back.