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Making the Heights a little less dry

From Swamplot:

beer

A GROUP CALLED the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition PAC is hoping to bring about a vote on allowing beer and wine sales in the technically dry section of the Houston Heights. The group published a notice on May 5th announcing an application to the city to start collecting the petition signaturesrequired to get the measure on a local option ballot.

[…]

The group’s immediate goal isn’t to do away with all alcohol restrictions, and the proposed ballot measure wouldn’t get rid of the current private-club workaround frequently employed by area bars and restaurants. But the proposal would lift existing barriers for stores trying to sell beer and wine to becarried away elsewhere — an issue that forced the recently closed Fiesta Mart at N. Shepherd and 24th St. to install its traditionally-in-the-parking-lot Beverage Mart a full 4 blocks away on the corner with 28th St. (across the northern boundary of the zone).

Here’s a map of the dry area, which hasn’t slowed the proliferation of places to dine and imbibe in the Heights. Many of them are east of Oxford, which puts them outside the zone. Others, like the Down House, do the “private club” dodge, while Torchy’s on 19th inherited a grandfathered license from a defunct icehouse. When I first read this story, I thought it would be about repealing the ban for eateries and drinkeries, but apparently not. The Press has since given some clarification about who and what is behind this.

The chair of the [Houston Heights Beverage Coalition PAC] is an attorney named Steve Reilley, a founding partner of the Thompson & Reilley law firm. He says that the main impetus for this action is that the group simply wants to have “a nice grocery store in the neighborhood.” He pointed out the recent closing of the Fiesta location in the area and says that retailers are unwilling to expand or move in owing to the inability to sell beer and wine. “They can’t make the money without the beer and wine sales. We hope we are able to bring these stores in if we are able to alter the statute,” he said. “We want the same nice stores you see in other parts of town and [to] have them be economically viable in The Heights.”

H-E-B is one of the grocery store chains that are eyeing building a store in The Heights, but nothing definitive has happened on that yet, according to Swamplot. We asked Reilley if H-E-B was one of the members of the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition. “I believe they have definitely expressed interest in it and they’re definitely going to support this,” he said. “It is my understanding that if it passes, they are going to very likely move into The Heights. To that degree, yes, they’re part of it, and I believe they will be part of it going forward.” We left a message for H-E-B’s director of public affairs in Houston to see if the grocery store chain has any comment, and will update this article if we receive a response.

Reilley said other grocery chains are part of the special interest group but said he wasn’t able to confirm that. He referred us to John Hatch of Texas Petition Strategies of Austin, a company that has been hired to oversee collecting signatures and, if the issue makes it onto the ballot, stumping for a passing vote. We left a phone message for Hatch but have not yet received a call back.

The press release says, “TPS has conducted over 300 petition efforts in 170 different Texas communities, with more than an 83% the efforts passing — including efforts in Brazoria County, Lumberton, Lubbock, Dallas and Fort Worth.”

I gather from recent activity on the Heights Kids message board that people have been out knocking on doors to gather petition signatures, with an aim of having something on the ballot this November. I also gather that some folks are not clear on the details of this issue – specifically, why part of the Heights is “dry”, what exactly that means, and why there needs to be an election to change it. That may add to their challenge. A this subsequent comment notes that there are some potentially tricky legal issues involved as well, meaning that however this shakes out someone may wind up suing over whatever the result is. Any lawyers in the crowd want to comment on that? In any event, we’ll keep an eye on this. I live outside the “dry” zone, so I (presumably) wouldn’t get to vote on this. If you’ve been asked to sign a petition, leave a comment and let us know. More here from Swamplot.

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6 Comments

  1. Doris Murdock says:

    Follow the money. Given TPS self-proclaimed status as “the leading expert on local option alcohol campaigns in Texas”, I’m of the opinion that this campaign is a pre-curser to a campaign to end the dry status of the Heights. We received a robocall yesterday urging us to sign a petition when someone comes to the door; those strategies aren’t cheap, and I want transparency on the funding. No doubt the activity will increase and residents have a right to know where the money is coming from. I would guess groceries, distributors, restaurant groups, certain commercial Realtors, and local distillers all have vested financial interests. There is also possibly an effort to get ahead of the Whole Foods 365 scheduled to be built at Yale & 610, and the HEB scheduled for Washington and Studemont.

    Newer residents, say those who’ve lived in the Heights less than 5 years(like Mr. Reilley per HCAD records), love living here if only there weren’t so many homeless people, if only crime weren’t rampant, if only they could walk a block to a full service restaurant offering plant-based balsamic-infused sushi, and order the local alcoholic beverage of their choice. Thanks to the Houston Press for clarifying that HEB needs 6 acres for a grocery. The Fiesta on Shepherd, in my experience offered poor quality vegetables and meats, more likely the reason for its closure. We’ve owned our home in the dry area for 26 years and have had no problem obtaining alcoholic beverages for ourselves and our guests. Anyone who cannot or will not walk, bike, or drive a few blocks for a drink needs a 12-step program.

  2. Jason Hochman says:

    I am outside of the dry part of the Heights. The relatively small part of what is now called the Heights, which was once the city of Houston Heights, is the dry part of the Heights, and there is no dearth of stores selling beer and wine just a few blocks away from any home in those parts of the Heights. I suspect that the terminology “nice grocery stores” is really a code for “free of them pesky minorities and unwashed rubes.” The New Urbanists are all for corralling certain types of the less wealthy into neighborhoods that flood all the time, and aren’t close to the “nice” neighborhoods.

  3. voter_worker says:

    Who knew that an obscure 1937 Texas Supreme Court ruling would still be relevant for a local election in 2016? To me that’s the most interesting angle in this proposal.

  4. Bill Daniels says:

    Texas liquor laws are byzantine and strange. Imagine if this much emphasis was put on where and how tomatoes or trumpets could be sold? You’d think that at some point, Blue Laws would finally die out and become just a footnote in the history books.

  5. Steve Reilley says:

    The proposed local option election is narrowly limited to off premises sale of beer and wine. No bars, no chain restaurants, no liquor stores — not change to nature of the Heights. This petition and election will not open the door any wider to complete repeal of prohibition in the Heights than the door has been open for the last 104 years. HEB is fully supportive of moving into the Heights, and they can only do so if the 1912 statute is altered in a local option election. The Texas Supreme Court ruled in 1937 that a local option election would be necessary in the same boundaries of the former municipality of the City of Houston Heights. The fact that the municipality no longer exists does not impact that. Similarly, the Texas Supreme Court recently ruled that a local option election was necessary in Dallas within the boundaries of a precinct that had not existed in decades. So our state’s highest court has at least twice outlined this local option election process the Heights.

    And, regardless of how long our neighbors have lived in the Heights, those in the dry area will get to vote. We can debate the issue (maybe without inaccurate ad hominem attacks), but reading up on what is being proposed is probably a good place to start rather than creating hysteria. It’s not at all about having the convenience to buy beer or wine in the Heights — that’s not the problem. It’s about making it economically feasible for HEB to invest in the Heights and for Kroger or other stores to invest in the property that is already in the Heights. It’s about having nicer grocery stores probably exactly where grocery stores have existed in the past — nothing scary.

  6. […] here for the background. The one thing I know for sure is that a lot of Heights residents have been […]