Monday, March 22, 2010

Space Jam : Occupancy laws in Houston are bad for business and the environment

posted by Free Press Houston @ 1:48 PM

By Omar Afra
There is a glaring contradiction in the City of Houston’s ordinances regarding occupancy for buildings.  For those who do not know, every public building which houses a business is issued a certificate of occupancy which states what the maximum capacity of individuals allowed to be in the building at any given time. Now, of course we want local government to ensure that buildings only hold the amount of people that can safely fit. You don’t want 65 overweight people crammed in a 10-person elevator, naturally. But there are some critical flaws in the way our City determines the occupancy of each building and it is unfortunately based more on business and transit than it is safety. Most importantly, capacity is determined by the City first and foremost based upon the available parking. The ordinance requires that a restaurant must have eight parking spaces per 1,000 square feet and bars are required to have ten spaces for a square footage. Keep in mind this does not include public parking on streets. For example, a retail store or a restaurant, which has the actual capacity of 100 people, could be given occupancy of only 12 people if it has only 3 parking spots.  So what about bike riders and walkers? People who ride the bus or even the light rail? You got it: the city makes no such allowances. You could have bike racks to facilitate 100 riders yet not get any additional occupancy.  Even businesses on Main St. where the light rail runs are faced with this dilemma. Surprisingly enough, the Montrose area was recognized by Walk Score as the ‘2nd Most Walkable’ neighborhood in all of the United States.  Then why are local businesses forced to use an antiquated method of create transit through their place of business?  Calls made to the City’s Occupancy office were at first passed around once we inquired about making allowances for bicycles, mass transit, and foot traffic.  Phone calls to the City’s Occupancy Permit office were bounced around and met with an anonymous chorus of  "I don’t know why bike riders and mass transit does not equal more occupancy." I also got this nugget of wisdom,  “We don’t care one way or the other if someone walks or rides a bike, we still need parking spots cause you can’t guarantee bike riders.”  This is a battle fought long and hard by local business people and entrepreneurs who don’t necessarily rely on automobiles for the lion’s share of the customers. Ziggy’s Healthy Grill on Taft at Fairview is in danger of being shut down by the city for their lack or parking as they were previously leasing an adjacent lot but the lease has since expired. But Ziggy’s lies smack dab in the middle of a dense neighborhood and could rely exclusively on foot traffic to sustain their business.  Even businesses on the infamous light rail line on Main St. are immune to this inconsistency in the law. Remember Main Street Improv? It was a grassroots run comedy club and event space. They hosted many upstart comedians in Houston as well as he famed Bill Hicks Ressurrection Society. After a long fight with the city, they were forced to close doors as they had too little parking. Solutions for Hair on Westheimer near Woodhead has fought a protracted battle with the city as they have required him multiple parking spots per salon chair. Why someone getting a trim and color correction needs to arrive with 3 cars is beyond me but I am sure the city has an explanation. Or maybe not. When quizzed about this strange requirement, anonymous city officials said, “ Houston is a driver’s city. People need to park. If you don’t like it, call the mayors office.” Well, calls to the Mayor’s office about this subject have yet to be returned. Giving the new and obviously busy Parker administration the benefit of the doubt, I imagine she has much to tackle this soon into her stay in the Mayor’s Office. But the problem remains and it is in complete contradiction with the vision she so deftly laid out for the city.  The meta-narrative is that federal government is the one setting up obstacles for small business owners. But this is a great opportunity for our new mayor to help get the city out of the way of entrepreneurs while stimulating green practices.
The inconsistencies in the laws fly in the face of efforts to make Houston a less car reliant city.  The last several mayors have made relieving traffic congestion a priority and made them cornerstones of their election platforms. Why not encourage bike riders, walkers, and mass transit through our city’s business practices? Cafes, shops, and bars often shape neighborhoods and if there is a place within walking distance people will walk.  Additionally, many businesses rely on bikers and walkers now as opposed to some distant hope for the future. Luckily enough, Café Brasil on Dunlavy has a building old enough that it falls under a Grandfather Clause, which allows it to operate without private parking. They rely heavily on neighborhood walkers, bike riders, and public street parking. After Houston getting such poor Green ratings from several national sources on recycling, transit, and air quality, it makes sense to move in this direction.
Ultimately, a change in the ordinances has the potential to take cars off the roads, encourage a few people to talk a brisk walk, and maybe, just maybe, allow the City Occupancy office to spend more of its precious time on other pressing matters.


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