The dry debate

The Chron hosted a mini-debate about the vote to change the Heights dry ordinance on its Monday op-ed pages. Bill Baldwin represented the status quo, for keeping the Heights (the original Heights) dry.

With the stark reality of land use as it is today, our deed restrictions are patchy, and most properties on high-traffic streets here are not restricted at all. In a city with no zoning, other typical neighborhoods have deed restrictions where the Heights does not. Undoubtedly, the dry area has successfully kept large operators such as Walmart, Target, Sprouts, Kroger and a Whole Foods concept on the way all outside of our historic borders. Eliminate that barrier and you make way for future big-box retailers, gas stations and convenience stores, along with their parking demands and high traffic.

You don’t build a fence to keep out the good neighbors; it’s for the bad ones. In this scenario, we still consider H-E-B a good neighbor, but I am concerned about operators without the reputation of H-E-B.

We don’t know exactly what will happen if we change the dry area, but we do know this: All around the city there is concern about the changing character of neighborhoods. Like the rest of the city, the Heights is wrestling with these issues of development and identity. How do we responsibly progress, increase property values and keep a sense of identity intrinsically tied to the community? In the Heights, the dry area has in many non-obvious ways functioned toward those ends. Keeping the Heights dry means also keeping it local and residential.

Steve Reilley spoke for the pro-change faction, to amend the historic dry ordinance to allow beer and wine sales for off-premise consumption, i.e., retail sales.

We need to alter this regulation in order to welcome locally oriented businesses into the community. Rest assured, this is a grassroots effort, and is not driven by businesses wanting to sell alcohol. More than 1,700 Heights voters signed the petition requesting the measure be placed on the Nov. 8 ballot. Our effort has been criticized because of H-E-B’s involvement. H-E-B didn’t sign the petition – we did. And the Texas Constitution gives us the right to have this election because we want to preserve our neighborhood, increase consumer options, raise property values and increase walkability, as Mayor Pro Tem Ellen Cohen, the chairwoman of the Houston City Council Quality of Life Committee, recently noted that the repeal of this regulation will do.

Some have suggested that permitting the sale of beer and wine for off-premise consumption will lead to the opening of convenience stores along Heights Boulevard, negatively affecting the Heights’ character. High property costs in the area would inhibit such use. In addition, much of Heights Boulevard and most of the affected area falls within the Houston Heights East and Houston Heights South Historic Districts, which prohibits existing covered structures from being torn down and replaced with nonconforming structures, such as convenience stores. Moreover, various properties along Heights Boulevard and other parts of The Heights are subject to deed restrictions that preclude commercial use.

Some opponents to the proposition have unfortunately engaged in “scare tactics” by suggesting unrealistic harm will fall upon our neighborhood if Heights-area stores are permitted to sell beer and wine for off-premise consumption. This election has nothing to do with liquor stores, bars, strip clubs or chain restaurants. It will have no impact on restaurants that operate as private clubs to serve alcoholic beverages to patrons. Residents will not be able to sell beer, wine or liquor out of their homes. This activity is already prohibited by numerous state laws, county regulations and city ordinances.

I did interviews with both gentlemen about this – here’s Baldwin and here’s Reilley. The latter was done in June after the petitions were submitted and before there was any organized opposition, so that interview was more informational, since there were still a lot of questions about what this effort was and what it meant. Baldwin doesn’t really say anything in his piece that he didn’t say in the interview he did with me, while Reilley’s article necessarily includes some rebuttals of pro-dry talking points. If you are in the affected area and somehow haven’t yet decided which way to go on this referendum, the two opinion pieces and interviews should tell you all you need to know.

I have no idea which side will win. I won’t be surprised by either result. There’s been a lot of recent discussion of it on the Heights Kids mailing list, with a fairly even split between the factions; the few recent threads I’ve seen on Nestdoor were all started by pro-dry people. I’ve seen more pro-dry yard signs than I have seen pro-amend signs, but I’d say half of those signs are in yards that are not in the affected area. (A good bit of the discussion I’ve seen in both places has been about who actually gets to vote on this issue.) I’m pretty sure there will continue to be a lot of chatter about this after the election, whichever way it goes.

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12 Responses to The dry debate

  1. Jason Hochman says:

    I’m glad to see that there is an organized opposition. Mr Reilley’s assertion that this is a grassroots effort is quite disingenuous, considering that the funding provided by HEB was at least $75,000. The idea that this change would provide more options is also a little silly. There is already an HEB on 18th, and the site of the proposed new HEB was home to a Fiesta until about six months ago.

    The Heights Historic District regulates building style, but not land use. So, it is not a complete protection against an influx of gas stations, convenience stores or liquor stores.

    I am also a bit irritated by Council Member Cohen taking a position on this. She lives nowhere near the Heights, I never see her in the Heights, and she has no idea about walkability in the Heights. Every day I walk to a bus stop to go to work, and have cars zooming by six inches from me. The neighborhood was not designed for the current traffic and density and a grocery store won’t fix that. It would be nice if all solutions were so simple.

    Meanwhile, to answer a comment from Bill Daniels, Fiesta was bought by another company last year, and its parent was bought as well. That may be one reason why Fiesta closed. Another of my theories is that they lost their lease. It seems as though there is a movement to keep the Heights from being too ethnic….the new people don’t want to rub elbows with those whom they pay to clean their homes and cut their grass.

  2. C.L. says:

    There’s enough ‘disingenuous’ to go around. Baldwin, who appears to be overtly concerned with the character of his neighborhood, 1-3 bedroom, 1-2 bath, period bungalows from 1910-30, has zero problem building and/or selling 4 bedroom/4 bath, 3K sqft two stories structures through his market area for a $1M plus. Too bad he wasn’t able to use his vast influence to keep out the Walmart clusterf*** or the Alexan monstrosity off Yale and 6th. Whoops, he’s selling a new build just a block off that intersection. Here’s a pet project for you, Bill – lobby Kroger to do something about the circus on 20th St.

    Reilly is just as bad. ‘We weren’t put up to this, nor financed by HEB’ ? Really, brother ?

  3. Jason Hochman says:

    @ CL: what do you mean by the circus on 20th Street?

  4. C.L. says:

    The Kroger, 20th at Yale location. It’s The Land That Time Forgot.

  5. Ross says:

    If the proposition passes, perhaps Kroger will invest in the 20th Street store so it can reap the profits of alcohol sales.

  6. TexanbyRecession says:

    So the 1700 qualified residents of the dry area of the Heights who signed the petition to add the proposition to the ballot aren’t considered “grassroots?” At least they recognize it’s time to live in the present.

    Do those leading the charge to keep prohibition alive in The Heights actually live in the area affected?

  7. Alaina says:

    As a resident who is FOR the change, rest assured that no one put me up to this. Our community continues to grow and thrive, despite some of the downturns in the Houston economy. The warmth and friendliness of the residents of our neighborhood are what makes it even more special. The ability to walk or bike to some of the recent additions to the neighborhood are rare treasures in this city, and believe it or not, that’s part of what makes the Heights desireable to those who have moved to our city from elsewhere in the country. Change is uncomfortable and difficult, but I’m convinced that it we all work together, we can make this neighborhood even better than it is!

  8. Pingback: Chron overview of Heights dry referendum – Off the Kuff

  9. C.L. says:

    @TexanbyRecession Signing a petition doesn’t make you a grass roots promoter, nor does not living in the current delineated ‘dry area’ shield you from the affects should the Prop pass.

  10. mollusk says:

    Oh puh-lease.

    I’m not really sure just why Bill’s got a horse in this race. He lives a block from a convenience store that sells beer. I live at the other end of the same street, closer to several others that also sell beer and wine. We aren’t awash in ne’er do wells, and have plenty of bungalows being torn down and replaced by $1M+ McCraftsmans. If the trouble right here in River City is trouble with a capital T that starts with B and that stands for Beer is all that terrible and real, then why are Liberty Kitchen and Ritual both located in what were recently convenience stores (that sold beer)?

  11. Jason Hochman says:

    @Texan by recession: No, they aren’t grassroots, because they signed a petition funded by HEB (probably $75,000) and the PAC that they created, which is run by a company that specializes in over turning dry laws. They have an extensive track record of elections. So, no, it is all funded for the profit of one company, during a time when the city really has more pressing needs to address. Ridiculous that quality of life comes down to closer beer. The fact that our council member, Ellen Cohen, supports this is reason enough to oppose it. Since Mayor Parker was elected, Houston has been in a steady nose dive, with developers and corporations run amok with tax abatement and the Rebuild Houston money that nobody can explain how it was used.

  12. C.L. says:

    @mollusk… Umm… Because neither Liberty Kitchen nor Ritual’s locations are located in the dry zone ?

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