When voters elected to overwhelmingly amend a section of the Heights’ dry ordinance in November, many believed the issue of alcohol sales in the neighborhood would be put to bed once and for all. But the sentiment will not take no for an answer, as another action committee now seeks to further loosen restrictions in the area.
Currently, businesses serving alcohol in the Heights “dry zone” are required to operate as private clubs, meaning restaurants must create a non-profit arm of their business, charge membership fees, and patrons must join that “private club” if they wish to drink at local watering holes. On June 9, it was announced that a group of citizens has formed the Houston Heights Restaurant Coalition and are calling for an election to support “hospitality businesses” in the Heights and overturn that section of the Heights remaining dry ordinance to make such sales more efficient — and the reactions have been a mixed bag.
The Heights Restaurant PAC has hired Texas Petition Strategies – the same company who partnered with H-E-B’s campaign last year — to circulate the petition.
“The restauranteurs came to us and said ‘hey, we’d like to be included in this.’ As soon as the election passed, they were blowing up our phones,” said Bryan Poff, project manager for Texas Petition Strategies.
Several restauranteurs, including Harold’s in the Heights, told The Leader in September they would be in favor of further modernizing the Heights’ dry laws, and now that could be well on its way. The committee drew inspiration from seeing voters pass an amendment to allow the sale of beer and wine for off-premise consumption last November, believing it signaled a mindset shift within the neighborhood.
“Last year, the voters overwhelmingly said they wanted to modernize alcohol sales rules in the Heights in order to bring in a new grocery store like H-E-B,” said Scot Luther, head of the Heights Restaurant PAC. “Changing this law will support our current hospitality businesses in the Heights and help eliminate burdensome fees and red tape.”
According to the Texas Restaurant Association, operating as a private club can cost restaurants anywhere from $3,000 to more than $20,000 per year in administrative costs, higher insurance premiums and more scrutiny from alcohol regulators.
“Studies show six out of 10 restaurants don’t make it past the first year, and part of the reason is because they have extremely low profit margins,” said Julie Rodgers, a manager at Coltivare on White Oak Drive. “Throwing additional and unnecessary costs on top of that lessens chances of success even more.”
It’s not all good in the neighborhood, though. Some, such as Maureen Hall (who has called the Heights home since 1981), were shocked when approached by a petitioner from Austin early last week.
“When they had the first election to overturn that part of the dry law, a lot of people were saying that if we just signed it so we can get the H-E-B, we will leave the rest of it alone, and suddenly here I get this person at the door,” she said.
Others, however, believe it was inevitable.
“I knew this was going to happen, because when you first looked when they did this petition, all these petitions were placed at restaurants and bars in the area,” said Stephen Lackey, who has resided near 24th Street and Ashland for more than two decades. “Why are they getting involved in that level of pushing for the law to be overturned when it had nothing to do with them — they were already looking down the road.”
Lackey believes the slippery slope is beginning to erode.
“They’ve let the monster out, and I don’t know if there’s any stopping this,” he said. “I think the new people who moved here don’t understand the ramifications of lifting this in the grand scheme of things — it’s very short sighted.”
Resident Matthew Leeper, however, believes that growth demands change, and at some point, the Heights must evolve with the times in accordance with the burgeoning city just a few miles outside its borders.
“I think it’s good for the businesses, and a lot of the business owners that I know from these places live in the Heights also,” he said of the proposed lifting of the private club law. “A lot of these people trying to open up places for the people in the Heights are being punished by some of these laws.”
Lackey, on the other hand, believes the impact of development as his neighborhood grows could be substantially more detrimental to the neighborhood than proponents realize.
“As a homeowner, I’m trying to protect my investment, and that is protected ever so slightly (right now),” he said.
What’s the harm?
For those who believe the ordinance creates a unique pocket of Houston, Leeper countered that having an abundance of places to “pop into” should the amendment get onto the ballot and pass, plays to the walkability of the Heights while adding its own true layer of uniqueness among an urban setting.
“I moved to the Heights (in 2002) for the uniqueness and ability to walk around and pop into places, and when we first moved here there was nothing there,” he said. “To see it evolve, even with all the steps people are having to run through is nice, and I think currently (this law) stunts the growth of the Heights.”
Hall is a friend to many in the business, and understands where many come from in their efforts to overturn. That said, she also believes the slippery slope of loosening alcohol restrictions has become even more treacherous.
“One of the things the dry laws have kept out are the chain restaurants,” she said. “If we had some deed restrictions of any kind, I would be fine with it. I just hate to see more of the destruction — the Heights we knew is barely hanging on.”
Rodgers countered by saying amending the private club option for restaurants would keep chains out anyway by empowering those local hot spots, accomplishing what residents wish.
“Folks say they like our unique restaurants in the Heights and don’t want national chains in the neighborhood, and changing the laws so that we can compete fairly is the best way to accomplish that goal,” she said.
Leeper echoed the sentiment.
“One beautiful thing about the Heights is that we are indeed limited in space — they’re definitely not making any more land, so I don’t see a huge operation coming up anytime soon anywhere,” he said.
Should the measure be placed on the ballot and passed, it would leave the historically dry portion of the Heights nearly wet.
“I don’t want to see this neighborhood turn. People just don’t understand that where houses are now, it’s easy enough to knock those down, and suddenly there’s something else there that is undesirable,” Lackey said. “There’s only been one thing we can hang on to here in the Heights which would keep disruptive large restaurants out of the neighborhood. This should be a place you can relax, and not have the problems that come along with these things.”
Change is good
While the Heights has become a hub of sorts just outside the heart of downtown Houston, Leeper believes more change should be on the horizon — and that’s not a bad thing.
“It’s nice to be able to walk around and check out bars, restaurants and music venues and have alcohol in them,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed the change (so far), and I think it’s brought about some interesting things, but at some point, you’ve got to take that next step.”
The group has 60 days to gather approximately 1,500 signatures from residents who live in the area formerly known as the City of Houston Heights. Only residents inside the original Houston Heights area are eligible to vote. For a list of locations and more information on the issue, voters can go to HeightsWins.com.