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City proposes bike parking alternatives


Public House on White Oak

Bicycle advocates are cheering a city proposal that would give businesses an incentive to offer bike parking and would require some properties to provide it for the first time, saying the ideas mark a cultural shift in Houston.

“This is a first for Houston and a sign of how our city is evolving,” Mayor Annise Parker said. “It recognizes the popularity of cycling and gives a nod to the fact that there are other modes of transportation besides automobiles.”

The bike-related ideas are included in a proposed rewrite of the city’s off-street parking ordinance, largely untouched since it was passed in 1989. The proposal is expected to go before City Council soon. Debate over the rewrite mainly has focused on its impact on bars and restaurants, many of which would be required to provide more parking.

The city initially had exempted only freestanding restaurants and bars smaller than 2,000 square feet from the higher parking requirements; independent restaurateurs wanted all establishments smaller than 4,500 square feet to be exempt. The sides appear to have reached an agreement that would exempt all restaurants smaller than 3,000 square feet and all bars smaller than 2,500 square feet.


Under the proposed revisions, new retail, commercial and office buildings 5,000 square feet or larger would need to provide one bike parking space, with another bike space required for every additional 25,000 square feet, up to a maximum of six spaces.

The ordinance also would allow any property, other than single-family homes, to reduce required car parking by up to 10 percent by trading one car space for four bike spaces. A 10,000-square-foot retail business, for instance, could drop its required 40 car spaces to 36 by increasing its bike parking from the required one space to 17.

As you know, I wholeheartedly approve of this. I wouldn’t mind seeing more flexibility on trading car spaces for bike spaces, but the fact that it’s happening at all is a big deal. Even better, the group that has been agitating the most forcefully for this sort of accommodation supports the proposal.

Brian Crimmins, chief of staff in the city Planning Department, also noted that the ability of any business (except single-family homes) to trade up to 10 percent of its required parking for additional bike parking spaces would still apply to all restaurants and bars (even those exempt from the higher parking requirements). That would allow these businesses to drop their car parking to essentially match OKRA’s proposal, he said.

In an email to top city staffers confirming the agreed changes, OKRA president Bobby Heugel said his group plans to vocally support the ordinance if it moves forward as negotiated.

“The manner in which our views were received and incorporated into Chapter 26 is exciting and encouraging as OKRA is new to the local political process,” he wrote. “It’s nice to know that participation can make a difference, and that the sharing of perspectives can result in policies in which a variety of stakeholders concerns(‘) are represented.”

You can see some more detail about the proposals as well as the full text of what the city has out forward and what OKRA had countered with.

The Chron editorializes in favor of the new approach, also with a desire to see it go farther.

We’re pleased that the new regulations include cutouts that allow different neighborhoods to create systems that are right for them. Among the added flexibility – such as reducing parking requirements for historic districts, letting bicycle parking replace a certain number of car spots and allowing shared parking lots – are Special Parking Areas. These would allow management entities to set their own parking management plan – with approval from City Hall.

This flexibility makes the proposed changes a vast improvement over the previous regulations, and the folks at City Hall say they’re trying to engage business owners so they can take advantage of the new rules on day one. City Hall could show more good faith by adopting recommendations by OKRA – the Organized Kollaboration of Restaurant Affairs – to allow more types of bars to be exempted from the higher parking minimums.

Residents worried about parking overflow can protect their neighborhoods by applying for permit parking on their streets, as many cocktail fans have learned while chasing down a tow truck.

But there is a price for living in walkable, dynamic neighborhoods, and it includes folks parking in front of your house. That is a price inner-loop Houstonians should be happy to pay.


The off-street parking debate

I believe the new offstreet parking requirements that have been proposed and are being debated are at least as big a deal as the Chapter 42 revisions. We really need to get this right.

Public House on White Oak

Under the new rules, some eateries – dessert shops, carryout restaurants – would need less parking, but requirements on most restaurants would go from eight spaces per 1,000 square feet of floor area to 10, with most bars going from 10 spaces to 14.

The revisions also would allow neighborhoods to create special parking areas tailored to their needs, reduce parking requirements for historic buildings, allow the substitution of bike parking for car spaces, loosen rules on how close lots must be to a building’s front door and make it easier for businesses to share parking.

As Houston seeks greater density in other initiatives, Councilman Ed Gonzalez said, the city must ensure the best use of its land.

“We’re still going with the basis that we’re going to be a car-dependent community going forward,” Gonzalez said. “What about the pedestrian? How can we better align transit to meet the needs of certain neighborhoods? We should be creating conditions to create more small businesses and more jobs, not more parking lots.”

That is an argument Bobby Heugel, the force behind several nationally acclaimed Houston restaurants and bars, has been making since 2011. He helped form OKRA, an Organized Kollaboration on Restaurant Affairs, to advocate for the next wave of independent restaurateurs, who he says would be barred from the market by the proposed parking changes.


The city proposes exempting freestanding restaurants and bars smaller than 2,000 square feet from the higher parking requirements; OKRA wants the threshold set at 4,500 square feet, regardless of whether a business is freestanding. City officials say they are willing to reconsider both points.

“The only opponents we have are city officials who incorrectly interpret residential concerns,” Heugel said.

As I said before, I have some sympathy for neighborhood residents who are tired of dealing with packed streets full of overflow parkers from nearby eateries and drinkeries, but any solution that requires more paved-over spaces or that discourages future innovation and growth in Houston’s dynamic food scene is a non-starter. The problem is that there’s been a lot of growth in many established inner core neighborhoods, with a lot more residents crowded onto the original plats and new businesses moving in to formerly abandoned spaces, but without a corresponding amount of growth in transit infrastructure. The influx of people and businesses is great and desperately needed, but the huge increase in vehicular traffic and demand for parking in places that were never built to handle it isn’t. As with other places that are dealing with more traffic than they can bear, providing viable non-car alternatives has to be a key component of the solution. Allowing food and drink establishments to trade bike parking for car parking is good, but the ultimate answer is bigger than anything the bars and restaurants themselves can do. Still, we need to remember that a lot of these new places, and a lot of the planned new places, are intended to be part of the neighborhood, and for the neighborhood. Their customer bases for the most part don’t need to drive and park to get there. The off-street parking regulations need to allow them to fulfill that vision. If we’re treating a neighborhood coffee house the same way as a franchise restaurant that fronts a highway, we’re doing it wrong.

Now you can drink for charity

The OKRA Charity Bar is now open for business.

Charity Bar — like Warren’s Inn, its neighbor around the block — will be open until 2 a.m. seven days a week.

“I think bars have a responsibility to people in the neighborhood to be consistent,” said OKRA founder and Charity Bar owner Bobby Heugel on the phone last week. Heugel himself has moved into downtown, just a stone’s throw away from Charity Bar, and is intent on building a community there at Travis and Congress.

As for the selection of booze at the bar, Heugel says: “We’re trying to put a little face of everybody into the bar program,” since Charity Bar is run by an “administration” of industry personnel that includes folks from Anvil Bar & Refuge, The Hay Merchant, Oxheart, The Pass & Provisions, Blacksmith, Underbelly, Poison Girl, Black Hole Coffee Bar, The Modular, Paulie’s, Big Star Bar, Grand Prize Bar, Antidote Coffee and Revival Market. (In case you weren’t counting, that’s three coffee shops, four restaurants, four cocktail bars, a grocery store and a craft beer bar.)
To that end, Heugel says, there will be “craft beer, cheap beer, just a pretty wide selection of beers once we get going.” And as for cocktails, expect a lineup of 20 classics made with fresh ingredients.

“We’ll try to cover all the bases and make sure when someone comes in they’re happy,” Heugel says.”

And as a reminder, Charity Bar isn’t just a name. Starting on January 1, Heugel and crew will announce the four nominees for that month’s charity beneficiary. Patrons at the bar will receive a token for every drink they order, and will use that token to vote for the charity of their choice (a program that’s been successfully employed at thrift clothing store Buffalo Exchange for years). At the end of each month, the tokens will be tallied and the charity with the most will receive 100 percent of the bar’s proceeds.

So there you have it: Good food, good drink, all for a good cause. What more do you want? The Charity Bar is at 924 Congress downtown, so go check it out.

Bike racks at restaurants

I wholeheartedly approve of this.

On nice days, a 20-station bicycle rack stays mostly full outside Hay Merchant, a food-and-beer establishment located among a cramped string of restaurants on Westheimer near Montrose. When the rack is full, it means 20 people left vehicles at home and freed up parking outside the popular venue.

The Hay Merchant is becoming an example of how private businesses can play a role in managing Houston’s urban congestion, and co-owner Bobby Heugel wants other owners of restaurants and bars to encourage customers to use bicycles.

Heugel created an initiative to provide free bike racks to small food-and-drink establishments located inside Loop 610. Beginning in May, the racks will be provided by Organized Kollaboration on Restaurant Affairs, a nonprofit advocacy group co-founded by Heugel to represent bars and restaurants.

“Our goal is to demonstrate that the private sector can provide a structured and responsible response to urban density and to our city’s reliance on cars,” said Heugel, who also co-owns Anvil Bar & Refuge. “It is not something we have to wait for city infrastructure to provide.”

OKRA is accepting cash donations and selling T-shirts to raise funds to fabricate a modified version of the bike rack outside Hay Merchant. The square rack, made from a single bar of heavy steel, can accommodate two bicycles. Racks can be connected.

The organization plans to start donating one rack per month. OKRA made arrangements to buy the racks at cost from the Houston-based firm Collaborative Projects.

I noted Heugel’s effort back in March. I’m glad to see it’s progressing. I would suggest that the Heights and the Washington corridor will be fertile ground for expansion, as they’re full of bars and restaurants, short on off-street parking, and within easy pedaling distance of a good portion of their customers. I’ve seen a few places in my neck of the woods with bike racks – I’ve used a couple of them myself – and have some photos of them here. More would be nicer, though honestly there’s no reason for these places to wait for Heugel. Adding a bike rack is a cheap investment in more capacity. It should be a no-brainer.

Public House on White Oak

Heugel said the city of Houston is seeking ways to deal with crowded off-street parking.

A current proposed change to a city ordinance could require new restaurants and bars to provide an increased number of parking spaces.

“It is very difficult for small, independent restaurants and bars to obtain additional parking, which requires them to spend more money on real estate to develop that type of infrastructure,” Heugel said.

OKRA’s members, he said, are trying to demonstrate that there are other solutions.

“For our part, this is just one effort out of many that OKRA plans to make that shows restaurants care about what happens outside of their walls,” Heugel said, and added that the issue at stake is bigger than parking.

“It is about how restaurants, bars and residents become better neighbors and how we deal with challenges that Houston is going to have to face going forward,” he said.

Dan Raine, a cyclist-pedestrian coordinator with the city’s Public Works & Engineering Department, said he personally thinks it “is a wonderful thing OKRA is doing, in particular in a high-density location where parking is at a premium.”

Here’s OKRA’s webpage if you want to learn more about them. The city should do its part to abet Heugel’s efforts by amending the proposed new parking ordinance to allow smaller bars and restaurants to substitute bike parking for vehicle parking. That’s what got Heugel on this crusade, and he’s right. The city has done a lot in recent years to make biking easier and more accessible. This is the logical next step. What exactly is the argument against?

By the way, a word about the bike parking that I spotted in my neighborhood. The pictures were all taken on a weekday afternoon, so don’t draw any conclusions about the number of bikes you see. I’ve seen the racks at Little Woodrow’s and Christian’s Tailgate during the weekend and weekday happy hour, and they do fill up. Several of these places I didn’t even realize had bike parking until I went looking for it. Some of that was just not noticing what I hadn’t thought about before, and some of it was because the racks were not readily visible from the street – I’m thinking of the Berryhill and Onion Creek bike racks in particular. Whatever publicity these places may have done to make their bike parking done, there’s room for more of it, that’s all I’m saying.