The sky isn’t falling in the Heights, it just feels that way. For starters, many homeowners in the historic area of the community once again feel like they’re fighting for property rights, when most thought those issues had been resolved.
And now, a group of old “friends” has come back to town, canvassing the streets in search of signatures to empty a growler on the last of the dry laws in the veritable neighborhood.
The latter of the issues, which has been publicized for the past week, is a continuance of the momentum built by the conglomerate that is H-E-B. Last year, the store hired Texas Petition Strategies to get enough signatures to place a proposition on the ballot to remove the prohibition of selling alcohol at businesses. The catch, in Prop 1, was that the alcohol could only be consumed off-premises. In other words, this didn’t impact bars or restaurants in the arid areas of the Heights. It simply meant stores – see H-E-B – would be able to sell beer and wine from its shelves.
It took bars and restaurants in the area all of about six months to realize they were short-changed in the deal. In order for patrons to drink at their establishments, they were still forced to create a non-profit arm of their business, charge membership fees, and still shop at retailers to indulge those who wanted a glass of Pinot Noir with their barely cooked red meats.
So that’s where we are: Texas Petition Strategies is well on its way to collecting the 1,500 signatures needed to get another proposition on the November ballot that will free all restaurants and bars in the Heights to sell alcohol – sans the memberships and retail booze buying.
Over the past few years, I’ve taken a number of stances in our neighborhood that most would view as progressive, though I tend to think they rely more on logic and big-picture than on any desire to see our neighborhoods transcend into West U or Tanglewood.
I have been an outspoken critic, without reservation, against the implementation of the Historic Preservation Ordinance. I’m not against historic preservation – not even close. I think the charm of the bungalows in the Heights is one of the great recruiters we have for the great citizens who choose to live here.
That does not mean I believe it is right, legally, for a group of self-indulged members of an appointed board downtown to single-handily impose restrictions on some homes and not on others (the folks in Garden Oaks know how that feels and won a court battle to stop the nonsense).
I still believe preservation can be stern enough to maintain character while accommodating to families that need more space for a brood of rug rats.
On the issue of lifting the ban on selling alcohol at local businesses, I supported loosening the laws enough to allow H-E-B to set up shop on Shepherd. Besides, I didn’t (still don’t) think having another grocery store would automatically mean Sam’s Club would buy 10 acres along Durham. That’s not going to happen because there isn’t enough traffic to feed the demand these mega-stores need to turn a profit.
Maybe I’m getting older, but my perception of this latest campaign to open up booze to any storefront in the area, without some sort of limitation, rubs me the wrong way. I think it’s a bad play by the restaurant owners in the long term, and I think it’s a rush on the organizers in the short term.
Here’s what I mean: When you remove all limitations for running a restaurant in our market, you open the field to any business that wants a target area of 50,000 rich folks. For instance, I will admit that I like to eat at Chili’s every once in a while – they have fantastic salsa, not to mention Michael Scott was right about getting business done there (an inside joke for my Office friends). But I am quite content to have to drive out to the borders of the neighborhood to get my fix of baby backs. In fact, I’d be furious if Chili’s set up shop at the corner of Heights and 19th. I’d be even more upset if the old water plant became a hub of national chains, including our friends over at Landry’s.
When you remove restrictions like this, you allow cookie-cutter businesses to move in just as quickly. These restaurants and bars don’t adjust their business models to fit local legislation; they go where the legislation fits their model.
Funny thing is, I don’t even know if that’s my biggest apprehension just yet.
Instead, I’m a little alarmed at the rush to make this happen. Voters in the Heights, by a margin of 4,761-2,680, passed Proposition 1 about seven months ago. In the months since that happened, we’ve barely seen a piece of foundation laid for the new H-E-B store. We’ve seen dirt moved, but that’s about it.
From the restauranteurs’ perspective, I understand the rush. The sooner they get the limitations lifted, the sooner their margins on drinks expand. But we’re talking about a few thousand bucks, largely for businesses that have figured out a way to survive in the Heights, already. Maybe they’re all on the brink of closure, and maybe that’s a discussion we need to have, but this sure seems fast to make another important decision about the Heights neighborhood.
If I lived in the Heights – and I did for five years before moving slightly north to find a back yard – I’d consider holding off a little. Let H-E-B build its fortress. Let’s see what happens to the streets around it as consumers flock to buy Texas-made jelly. Let’s see if there’s a negative impact on our neighborhoods, and then let’s see if it makes sense to open our community to any bar or restaurants that finds our laws slack enough to open shop.