"I don't see anyone riding the bus to El Real," remarked James Jard, one of the 26 members of the City of Houston's Planning Commission that was gathered in City Council chambers yesterday afternoon for a public hearing.
It was just one of the many responses that the committee had to the standing-room-only crowd of some of the city's most outspoken bar and restaurant owners, owners that for the most part are diametrically opposed to the City's proposed off-street parking ordinance. If urban density and walkability are so important to the city, argued the committee, why aren't more Houstonians taking public transportation to their favorite bars and restaurants?
If passed, the ordinance would require bars and restaurants to provide significantly more off-street parking than is currently required. Advocates of the ordinance argue that it would ease parking concerns and overflow into residential neighborhoods in high-density urban areas such as Montrose and Washington Avenue.
Small business owners like Anvil's Bobby Heugel, on the other hand, are passionately opposed to any increase in parking, for fear that it will discourage growth of the city's local dining scene in favor of big-box retailers and chain restaurants, as well as discourage future growth of better public transportation. Heugel spoke to the committee along with business partner Kevin Floyd.
"The identity of what a restaurant and what a bar is in Houston is changing dramatically. It is no longer a large space, attempting to fill up with people from the suburbs. It is a localized movement," said Heugel. "You basically handicap people like me who have a positive impact on our community."
"The Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau markets bars and restaurants like ours over and over again as a national identity for the city," continued Heugel, who is concerned that Houston's fledgling independent food scene will be crushed just as it's beginning to be recognized on a national level.
The large turnout at today's public hearing was due in large part to Heugel and Floyd's efforts at organizing like-minded business owners, but those efforts may have come too late.
"Last week was the first planning session I can remember in many, many years where members of the neighborhood came down in support of a bar or restaurant," said Jard in response to comments from David Robinson, president of the Super Neighborhood Alliance and the Neartown/Montrose Super Neighborhood, who was speaking in support of small restaurants and bars.
"Normally," finished Jard, "the people you represent are the ones who are down here every time we have a bar or restaurant asking for a variance, complaining about the lack of parking, complaining that there was a lease, but now it's gone away." Members of the small business community have had ample opportunities in the past to attend meetings, Jard said, but most haven't.
"In addition to telling us why this won't work and the damage it does to the small businesses, we'd really appreciate comments as to what do we do about those people?" asked committee member Paul Nelson. "I think that's why we're writing this ordinance, is in response to those things. It's easy enough to say what it won't do, but what we really need is some help to address those people it does affect."
While the proposed parking ordinance wouldn't affect current bars and restaurants, it could conceivably make it difficult for small businesses to get off the ground in the future: New bars would be required to provide 40 percent more parking, new restaurants would be required to provide 20 percent more, and daunting five-year leases on parking lots would be put into effect.
It was this last issue that Rachel Quan of the Houston Restaurant Association brought to the committee's attention. The HRA has worked alongside the Planning Commission throughout the construction of the new ordinance, but still found fault with several issues.
"We don't think we're going to be able to get a lot of owners to even agree to the minimum of five years for the lease agreements," Quan said. "Right now, many of them go month-to-month. Five years is a long time."
Jard pointed out, however, that most bar and restaurant owners don't go into their business thinking that they'll only last a month or two, referencing large chains like Chuy's in his statement. On other hand, he admitted: "There seems to be a disconnect, maybe in the size of the restaurant. If you have a restaurant that seats, say, 60 people. Maybe we hadn't thought of it that way."
Committee member Sonny Garza further explained the five-year lease minimum in terms of financing: "If [businesses] don't have parking for the length of that loan, what happens? he asked. "We didn't want an inexperienced business owner to go out and assume, 'Well, in a year I'll be able to find land and do another lease agreement with them.' And they don't do it, their restaurant gets shut down, and they literally have to file for bankruptcy."
"It puts everyone in a very negative situation," Garza said. However, "both the landowner and the restaurant owner can [voluntarily] back out of their agreements," at any time, he continued.
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None of this assuaged Scott Repass, owner of Poison Girl, who wrote in an email later that afternoon: "The new parking requirements would undoubtedly discourage small business development and encourage regional and chain stores. The three types of businesses who would be required to have more parking -- restaurants, bars, and barbershops or salons -- are traditionally locally owned. These are the types of businesses that individuals can start using just their personal savings and hard work. And those individuals are not likely to have the capital to buy the building next to theirs and tear it down for parking."
"I can't even begin to get into what these proposals do to the idea of a walkable city," Repass finished. "It is suburb thinking applied to the city as a whole."