UPDATED: Some Members of the Hyde Park Civic Association Don't Like Their New Neighbors, Underbelly and Hay Merchant

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UPDATE: Bobby Heugel, co-owner of Hay Merchant, contacted us and requested that we publish his unedited response to the situation. You'll find it on page two of this post in its entirety, along with our own response.

Maybe the guests at Chances and Mary's were quieter back in their days, or maybe Montrose residents have short memories these days. Either way, the Hyde Park Civic Association apparently isn't a fan of its newest neighbors -- Underbelly and Hay Merchant, the new restaurant and craft beer bar duo at Westheimer and Waugh -- and plans to do something about it.

According to the Hyde Park United Civic Association's Facebook page (a private group; we've kept the names of the residents private here as well), they plan to protest a recent notice from the City of Houston that would allow Underbelly and Hay Merchant -- which the Facebook page calls "Hay Market" -- to have an on-street valet parking zone.

"This notice was sent to residents located within 200 feet of the proposed zone," said the Facebook update, which sparked a litany of complaints below.

Wrote one neighborhood resident:

I asked an employee parked in front of my house why he didn't park at the restaurant and he said the manager told employees not to park in their lots but to park on the streets (in front of our homes!). We had to call the police early Sunday morning because four restaurant employees were having a tailgate party in the 2600 block of Yoakum. They were totally obnoxious and drinking straight from 32 oz. bottles. The female urinated in a recessed alcove of a neighbor's property. All were wearing their uniforms with the restaurant logo - so their affiliation was pretty obvious.

When reached for comment, Hay Merchant co-owner Kevin Floyd said that Underbelly staff don't wear branded T-shirts, and only Hay Merchant staff wear shirts with identifying logos on them. It seemed unlikely to him that his employees would throw an impromptu tailgate and HPD shows no record of such a complaint on file.

Parking seemed to be the biggest complaint, however, with many residents chiming in about not only Underbelly and Hay Merchant, but also the new Legacy Community Health Services Building, in a new building that replaced a long-vacant structure which had been a club/bar on and off for years.

"Completely agree with everyone's frustration!" wrote another resident. "Between Legacy and Underbelly/Hay Merchant, we have very little parking for guests and residents at Commonwealth at California."

A valet parking permit, Floyd explained, would allow Underbelly and Hay Merchant to pack patrons' cars into both of their lots and leave far fewer cars on the street as a result.

Ironically, it's Floyd and Bobby Heugel -- both partners at Hay Merchant and its sister bar, Anvil -- who have been some of the most vocal advocates for better parking arrangements and public transportation in the city's more densely populated areas. The men even went so far as to found a non-profit to tackle such issues, OKRA.

"One of our goals," said Floyd, "beyond serving the best beer and food we can, is to help the greater Houston community grow. We take pride in having good relationships with our neighbors. It was our open communication with the local community that helped make Anvil the fixture that it is and it is my hope that the same will be true about Hay Merchant."

As an example, he added: "Recently, one of the residents that lives behind us pointed out that our parking lot light was shining into his living room. As soon as he told me about it, we disconnected it until we could find a better solution. As long as we talk to each other we can always find a solution. "

As demonstrated time and again, the parking issue in Houston's urban core is only going to get worse -- especially in rapidly growing areas like Montrose -- unless the City irons out the many kinks in its proposed Off-Street Parking Ordinance. At least one Hyde Park resident sees it that way, too:

"The City of Houston is to blame here," he wrote. "Any world class city has a parking strategy that includes municipal parking. Sadly Houston fails miserably here. That needs to change if Houston is to be even close to world class."

UPDATE: Bobby Heugel, co-owner of Hay Merchant, contacted us and requested that we publish his unedited response to the situation. You'll find it below in its entirety, along with our own response.

It's a sad day indeed when you devote a significant portion of your recent life to resolving an issue only to have a credible local publication publish comments from a Facebook thread on the matter and consciously not follow-up on additional comments and information you've given them. I'm referring to an article on the Houston Press blog, Eating Our Words entitled "Hyde Park Civic Association Doesn't Like Its New Neighbors, Underbelly and Hay Merchant", a title, which is factually incorrect and intended to generate drama, regardless of the consequences.

Last night, we were contacted by Katherine Schilcutt, head food critic for the Houston Press, (in the middle of service, mind you) about a thread that is found on a Facebook page for the Hyde Park Civic Association. Included in this thread, were some comments from individuals complaining about a recent incident involving "uniformed" individuals drinking late in the morning outside of a resident's home. Kevin, my business partner, did the best he could to respond at the time (while managing the shift at Hay Merchant), as we were told this was our only opportunity to do as she was on a deadline. He immediately contacted me as well.

I was able to respond to the issue later in the evening, and I informed Katherine that there was no police record of the incident, and that we were trying to determine if this issue was even related to our employees. I provided additional information about our ongoing attempts to maintain adequate parking for our consumers and my unwavering commitment to the issue. ABOVE ALL, I asked Katherine to please give me a phone call so I could speak with her prior to publishing the article. I received no such phone call aside from a small reply on Twitter acknowledging my comments.

Yet beyond all of these attempts, this article was still fit to print without modification because of a few comments on a Facebook thread - a thread mind you, I've engaged personally and am trying to resolve these issues on directly. Why has this occurred? Because it is easier to write an article, post it on a blog, and move on than it is to actually investigate something in a manner that accurately represents the story. I understand that this is where journalism is going. Those writing for Eating Our Words and other online publications clearly have very demanding jobs that often times are based on quantity of articles published and needs to be the first to a story. Clearly, these circumstances make getting to the bottom of everything difficult. We can all complain about the death of journalism in this era, but the very key to this issue is a readership that we all belong to that values instant gratification over anything else. Generally, they're just doing their jobs.

Unfortunately, this situation doesn't qualify. When there is additional information about a pending story, and a publication or author consciously chooses to not follow-up on it with a phone call or editing the story, something is very wrong. This indicates that such a publication is concerned with fanaticism and online clicks over truth and maintaining professional relationships with their community. For my part, I'm going to start repairing our reputation that we have spent years trying to develop so that we can help resolve parking issues in Houston. A reputation that benefits not our direct relationship with residents, but every restaurant and bar owner in the city. Eating Our Words is very aware of how important this issue is our community and neighborhoods, and it saddens me to know that they would sacrifice the facts revolving around such an important issue for a simple post on a blog.

In the meantime, here's some facts about who we are as company as well:

1. We are one of only a few restaurant and bar groups that consistently goes to city and neighborhood meetings to develop parking solutions that benefit BOTH the independent segment of our industry AND neighbors.
2. We spend more money on rent at Anvil for parking lots - THREE OF THEM - than we do for the actual building. We provide valet not only for our guests, but for guests of Boondocks and Etro, bars neighboring us, which have only a small percentage of the parking we do, despite being larger. We have FOUR LOTS available for use for Underbelly and Hay Merchant totaling over 300 spaces.
3. We started an organization, called OKRA - An Organization Kollaboration on Restaurant Affairs - which is actively pursuing initiatives that will lead to reduced on-street parking in our city. I was going to release a press release on this next week, but here you go anyway. We're going to start providing complimentary bike racks to small restaurants and bars inside the loop, at our cost, to encourage alternative transportation in Houston. This is for OTHER restaurants and bars, not our own, which already have bike parking.
4. We applied for a valet zone, which some residents are concerned about, so that we would meet City requirements for valet service. This small section of the street will allow us to keep cars off of neighborhood streets by allowing us to "zone" them in a valet area and move them to another parking lot - not the neighborhood. We are reaching out to the Hyde Park Civic Association currently to explain this situation and demonstrate how this is GOOD for the neighborhood and pro-active on our part. That's what we do; we reach out to neighborhood organizations and constantly try to keep them in mind. This valet zone isn't in front of anyone's home; it's right next to our building.
5. We don't valet a single car on public streets at any of our businesses. We pay for separate lots at every establishment for valet service. THIS IS EXTREMELY RARE, and it is often considered a bad business decision by many in our industry who choose to valet cars on public streets. I'm not blaming or judging those that do; I'm just saying we go above and beyond to make sure this doesn't happen with our businesses.
6. WE CARE. I understand that the City of Houston's lack of adequate mass transit at a time when density inside the loop is increasing is difficult. These circumstances place restaurants and residents at odds at times, but I challenge you to find another group in the city that handles their parking needs more constructively and engages the community more extensively than we do. You won't find it. We care not only about the success of our business, but the future of our industry and community. And, we know that this future hinges upon our industry taking a pro-active approach to resolving parking problems in a manner that doesn't hurt residents. It's not about money. Anyone who knows me, knows I could care less. It's about forming a community where residents and business owners alike enjoy having one another as neighbors and are proud of where they love. That's the city I want to see Houston become.

Making all of this happen is extremely difficult when a credible publication chooses to not handle their responsibilities as a press entity appropriately. Next time, I hope that Eating Our Words will fully investigate issues and engage them before publishing words written on a Facebook thread as a full representation of the neighborhood issue. Maybe they should look at the thread again and write about the business owner who engages the neighborhood in a pro-active manner. That likely wouldn't generate as many clicks however, but in the end, I'm sure this post will only make this issue more controversial, which might have been the game plan in the beginning. Congratulations Eating Our Words - you've got another hot one of your hands at our expense all over again. In the future, however, I'd like that phone call and a little more consideration for facts, not sensationalism. If you're a reader of this publication, I hope that we can collectively expect more from a publication that continues to have an ongoing record of publishing information without verifying it to the detriment of those on which it reports. I'm sure few will care about this issue as much as I do, but I would personally like to challenge Eating Our Words to do a better job in the future of understanding their responsibilities as media members. I've always respected how you handled your role in our community; please continue giving us a reason to do so.

Alright, I'm going to continue scrambling all day to try and address this problem, which could have otherwise been addressed with a few phone calls. Maybe that way we can continue to have a positive impact on our community, and our credibility on this issue won't be totally shot. It's not like I had anything else to do today...

At Eating Our Words, we remain committed to covering ongoing issues and providing continued coverage of topics that we've always covered in the past -- the current parking situation in Houston's urban core among them. Our news coverage is not focused on what will gain us the most pageviews, but rather what our readers are most concerned about and interested in. This is clearly one of those topics.

Additionally, I was in contact with Kevin Floyd throughout yesterday afternoon and did not suddenly contact either Floyd or Heugel out of the blue during service. Floyd was unable to fully respond to my emails earlier that day, but provided me with a full statement that evening which he then followed up with an email later that night. Floyd is Heugel's business partner and his statement on the Facebook posts amply addressed those issues.

Follow Eating Our Words on Facebook and on Twitter @EatingOurWords

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