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Bobby Heugel's Take on the City Parking Ordinance

On the House is Eater's column that goes behind the scenes of the restaurant business, written by the owners, operators, chefs and others who make our favorite establishments tick. Today, Bobby Heugel, co-owner of Anvil Bar & Refuge, among others, in Montrose, gives us this op-ed on the current changes being discussed by City Council affecting parking at bars and restaurants.

Bobby Heugel's bar, Anvil Bar & Refuge, in Montrose. [Gary R Wise]

Houston’s independent restaurant and bar community has reached a breaking point. For several years now, Houston’s hospitality industry has faced an onslaught of rising city fees, inconsistent regulation, and now, proposed increases to minimum parking requirements. While some of Houston’s larger chains may be able to sustain these additional pressures, Houston’s smaller establishments are suffering, and the future of our dining and bar scene is at stake.

To have your say, please support local Houston bars and restaurants by attending this meeting tomorrow regarding the changes in parking requirements. But until then, here's my arguments.

Specifically, the proposed Off-Street Parking Ordinance would make it significantly more difficult to open a restaurant or bar in our city – reserving this entrepreneurial endeavor for those capable of controlling sufficient real estate to meet the potential increases in parking requirements. To be fair, the ordinance does offer several positive changes to city codes. Namely, an increased emphasis on biking and decreased parking requirements for historic buildings are the types of changes Houston should be undertaking. However, additional minimum parking standards represent an objectable flaw in municipal planning. Currently, to open a new restaurant in Houston, business owners must provide 8 parking spaces for everyone 1,000 sq. ft. of restaurant space; bar owners must provide 10 spaces per 1,000 sq. ft. The proposed changes would require restaurants to provide 10 spaces per 1,000 sq. ft. and bars to provide 14 spaces per 1,000 sq. ft. If this proposal is adopted, future establishments will be required absorb an additional 25% in parking costs for restaurants and 40% for bars.

Adhering to such a standard would not be an easy task. At Anvil for example, we rent three separate parking lots from three landlords. Our parking rental costs actually exceed our building rentals costs by 17.5%. Amid all of the obstacles that a would-be restaurant or bar owner faces, dramatic increases in parking costs to the tune of 40% would represent an enormous financial burden on newer establishments. Coupled with additional proposed requirements that valid leased parking be required to be legally secured for up to five years, new ventures in Houston’s hospitality industry may become increasingly rare in the years to come.

Man, this post is getting pretty heavy?here’s my recipe for a Manhattan to help you get through the rest of this:


2.25 Rittenhouse Bonded Rye
.75 oz Carpano Antica
2 Dashes Agnostura Bitters

Stir with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a cherry.

Ok?much better. Let’s continue. Moreover, such additional costs would certainly influence decisions business owners make on a daily basis. With less expendable revenue, restaurants and bar would find it more difficult to support local farmers and ranchers, whose products typically cost more, generate revenue for local charities, and sufficiently employ a large workforce. There has certainly been high-profile areas of conflict between restaurants or bars and neighborhoods, but the cost at which this proposed policy attempts to address these incidents is far too excessive. Dare I even mention the potential tax revenue that will be lost as the restaurant and bar industry suffers?

In reality, despite a wave of media attention and localized complaints, the cases of conflict are extremely limited and shouldn’t affect our city as a whole. It is very clear that these new proposals are aimed at addressing these areas of conflict – namely along Washington Avenue and, most recently Kirby – where large nightclubs have generated sudden and unexpected parking problems for the surrounding area. It is one thing for a few of a neighborhood restaurant’s customers to park on the street during peak hours; it’s an entirely different issue for a nightclub with 1,000’s of guests to drunkenly vacate an establishment at 2:00 in the morning.

It is obvious that Houston needs to address problems that affect residents in impacted by on-street parking, but those planning Houston’s future also need to recognize that the Off-Street Parking Ordinance threatens smaller neighborhood restaurants and bars that residents also enjoy. This is an impact that the majority of Houston’s residents don’t support, and it requires that city officials better explore options for sustaining the entrepreneurial spirit of the hospitality industry while addressing legitimate concerns of Houston residents regarding on-street parking. Houston’s streets belong to everyone, and trying to restrict access to them through backhanded policies is tantamount to privatizing public pavement.

Certainly, there are both sides of the issue, and I don’t envy the position of anyone given the responsibility of juggling these concerns. However, when we spoke at the Planning Commission Hearing recently, I was challenged to offer alternative solutions for dealing with these conflicts. You can watch a recording of the hearing here by clicking on “Item 1”. I’m not sure I’m qualified for any type of municipal planning, but I gave it a shot. Here’s a couple of tips from a 28 year-old local bartender:

1. READ. There is a vast array of literature available detailing the negative impact of minimum parking standards on urban life. It’s hypocritical for the City to fund initiatives that promote inner-loop density while at the same time legislating dependency on parking lots. Other warm and fuzzy city initiatives like building preservation also don’t tend to happen when structures must be torn down to meet parking standards. Furthermore, it’s irrational to expect the public to support mass transportation initiatives when there’s no motivation to use them as a result of increased reliance on personal automobiles as means of transportation. These are basic, widely accepted and researched views on the minimum parking standards. Need to check into for yourself? I’d start with this study from The University of California Transportation Center.

2. ACKNOWLEDGE THE DIVERSITY OF THE HOSPITALITY INDUSTRY. In regards to highly publicized conflicts between “bars” and residents, reconsider the identity of the Houston restaurant and bar – it’s evolved more than ever over the past few years into a smaller, localized concept. There’s a difference between nightclubs and bars, and city policy should consider this. If the new proposals can recognize the difference between restaurant types in regards to minimum parking requirements for categories such as “Take Out or Drive Through Only”, “Dessert Shop”, and “Restaurant”, then why is there a blanket approach for the neighborhood bar and the colossal nightclub? If we need to delve further into these differences in person, I would be happy to take the Planning Commission out this weekend – drinks on me.

Maybe we could even talk about Seattle’s minimum parking policy over a couple of beers? Scott Repass of one of Houston’s best bars, Poison Girl, pointed out today that Seattle actually requires NO parking for spaces below 2,500 sq. ft. Now, I’m not suggesting that such a policy is good for Houston, but here is yet another example of urban policy that acknowledges the smaller, independent portion of our industry while still addressing the impact of larger establishments. Sure, grunge is over, but how about creating a tiered parking requirements based on occupancy load instead? There are many proven options and examples of their effectiveness in cities throughout the U.S.; their only shortcoming is that they require more detailed, thoughtful construction rather than the faster, generalized approach.

3. SUPPORT AREAS THAT FAVOR DENSITY. Several Houston districts prefer density and oppose minimum parking ordinances. Many Montrose residents and community leaders for example have been extremely outspoken against the ordinance since this issue became more publicized in recent weeks. Why not allow for different parking standards in these types of districts? This is clearly possible as Downtown has different parking requirements than the rest of the city.

Not only will this approach recognize the diversity of Houston’s resident and commercial population, but it would actually help to deter future conflicts between residents and the hospitality industry. By easing parking requirements in specific parts of Houston, entertainment districts are more likely to develop that will over time conflict less with neighborhoods.

4. DON’T CREATE POLICIES THAT KILL PEOPLE. In 2009 Harris County topped larger US counties in DWI-related fatalities. So?and this one seems pretty obvious?maybe more parking for bars isn’t a good idea?

5. CONSIDER GRADUAL CHANGES TO PARKING STANDARDS. 25-40% changes for minimum parking requirements aren’t small adjustments, they’re huge changes that will significantly impact our industry and residents that enjoy visiting our establishments. It’s wrong to increase minimum parking requirements from just about any perspective, but if we must succumb to the parking lot itch, perhaps, smaller adjustments would constitute a more reasonable approach that could be better analyzed over time.

6. EASE OTHER FINANCIAL PRESSURES ON THE HOSPITALITY INDUSTRY. Adjust citywide fees for restaurants and bars in order to be able to afford additional parking costs. Due in large part to 2010 hikes, permitting fees for restaurants and bars are completely out of hand. Yes, there is a budget shortfall, but the increased fees for opening a bar and restaurant ultimately represent a silent tax on our industry that the public is largely unaware of. I can’t imagine that during a period of economic shortfall that Houstonians would support any type of policy that places hurdles in the way of new business development and economic growth. Sure, it’s easier to ask restaurants and bars to supplement city coffers than it is other groups. After all, we don’t have the same lobbying power as other industries. However, this isn’t a long-term solution for a city that is trying to bolster its national image and subsequent tourism opportunities.

7. CLARIFY CODE ENFORCEMENT. For the sake of all that is chewy and delicious, please investigate the City of Houston permitting and inspection process. When we started Underbelly and Hay Merchant, I had no idea that we were applying to construct a nuclear silo, but apparently, that is the case. Hospitality professionals and city inspectors alike are frustrated with this process. Specifically, there needs to be better communication between on-site inspectors who, at no fault of their own, frequently contradict each other as the inspection process moves forward amid unclear and ever-changing codes. It would also be wise for permitting, planning, and public works officials to hang out occasionally so that they understand each other and can consider their positions in light of one another. We’ve been told that many of the proposed changes outlined in the ordinance attempt to clarify these types of misunderstandings. If this is really a priority, countless opportunities for clarity and efficiency are riddled throughout the permitting and inspection process.

The proposed Off-Street Parking Ordinance ultimately questions so much about the nature of our city’s direction. Why does the City of Houston continue an assault on its restaurant and bar industry during a period of economic decline? Do our city officials really like Big Macs? Will we continue to embrace urban sprawl, or will we acknowledge that Houston has potential to become a more efficient, stable, and healthy community? Again, I just make drinks, not city policies, but deciding whether to support minimum parking ordinances seems about as straight-forward as a shot of bourbon.

If you agree, please write your City Council Members and encourage them to support the independent Houston restaurant and bar by opposing proposed increases to minimum parking requirements. You’ll not only encourage the ongoing growth of Houston’s food scene, but you might just help Houston grow up a bit too.

-Bobby Heugel, Anvil Bar & Refuge

Anvil Bar & Refuge

1424 Westheimer Rd. Ste. B Houston, TX 77006