If you thought the fight against proposed parking increases for bars and restaurants was over, you're wrong. The battle is just gearing up, although it's been 16 months since proposed changes to the City of Houston's severely outdated Off-Street Parking Ordinance were first introduced by the Planning Commission.
Anyone who's a fan of urban renewal, increased density in the city's core or the continuing revitalization of neighborhoods such as Montrose -- where independently owned bars and restaurants like Uchi, L'Olivier, Underbelly, The Hay Merchant, Blacksmith, Roost and Triniti have been drawing national acclaim -- will want to listen up, because the proposed changes to the parking ordinance would deal a huge blow to the progress that's being made city-wide.
In a nutshell, says Bobby Heugel -- co-founder of the Organized Kollaboration on Restaurant Affairs and owner of Anvil Bar & Refuge, among other local ventures -- the problem is this: Increasing parking requirements for bars and restaurants is a temporary and shortsighted solution to a much more complicated problem.
"It's just a simple answer that people think will pacify a small miniorty of neighborhood residents," Heugel says.
Vociferous neighborhood associations and their residents have rightfully complained about the increasing number of cars parked on side streets and in residential areas as businesses bloom in areas like Montrose, Midtown and the Heights. The City's proposed response to this is simply to require restaurants and bars to offer more parking spaces. Under the proposed changes, 40 percent more parking would be required for bars and 20 percent more for restaurants, although there is at least one caveat worth mentioning.
That caveat is the City's one attempt at pacifying the bar and restaurant owners who have lobbied passionately against the increase: small, freestanding restaurants below 2,000 square feet would be exempt from the parking increase. But even that compromise seems hollow when you realize that structures of that specific type are few and far between in Houston.
"The only problem with a 2,000-square-foot freestanding building is that it doesn't exist," says Heugel, who cited his newly opened coffee shop -- Blacksmith -- as an example. "Blacksmith wouldn't even qualify -- and you don't get much smaller than Blacksmith."
Although existing bars and restaurants would also be exempted from the parking increase and grandfathered in, the main issue is that the increased parking requirement would make it exponentially more difficult for future bars and restaurants to open -- especially those run by independent operators.
Why? Simple: Chain restaurants can afford to purchase extra land and raze existing structures within the urban core to make room for parking. Start-up restaurateurs and small-scale entrepreneurs can't.
More to the point, do you want Houston's landscape to be even further scarred by the construction of more and more and still more ugly, gray, concrete sores, oozing endless streams of traffic? Or would you rather encourage more intelligent use and development of existing public transportation? Would you rather allow restaurants and bars to make their own decisions regarding what parking solutions best fit their customers' needs? What if a restaurant is perfectly content to be a walkable, neighborhood spot? What then?
"You have to realize how much of a threat this is to the restaurant industry and the momentum we have right now -- momentum that our government uses to promote the city," notes Heugel. "Small business owners don't have the time to share that information with people, and this is only going to get worse."
The proposed changes are going before the Housing sub-committee at City Hall today at 1:30 p.m., a meeting which is open to the public. Heugel and OKRA plan to present an alternative solution to the proposed changes, which they hope will benefit people on both sides of the issue.
"We want to convert the 'freestanding' requirement and increase the square footage requirement to 4,500 square feet," says Heugel. "We feel this preserves access for the smaller independents to the industry and addresses concerns for the neighborhood. It's a really good compromise and this is something that makes a lot of sense."
Heugel is hopeful that members of the Housing sub-committee will be receptive to his proposal, as he's already made good headway with a handful of City Council members. Today's meeting is the first of several before the proposed changes head to City Council to be ratified.
"Showing up to speak and showing up to make a presence are important," says Heugel. "We need to have consistent support, even if you don't have anything to say." Those who can't attend but wish to address the committee are invited to do so (in 250 characters or less) on the City's Proposed Ordinance Feedback page.
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Heugel is also quick to note that it's not just small businesses who benefit from less stringent parking requirements. Developers and landlords, those powerful entities which have long controlled Houston's planning destiny, would be negatively impacted by an increase as well.
"If these parking regulations pass, you can no longer lease your property to a restaurant," says Heugel. "And they have no idea it's coming."