There are parking hassles aplenty for both customers and residents along Washington Avenue. The bar boom has brought fleets of thirsty revelers to the avenue in the last five years.
The growing pains of what is now being called an entertainment district are most acute in the jockeying for parking.
Motorists clog residential streets cruising for spaces. Valets set off car horns as they locate cars by pressing the remote locks. People cross busy streets as they proceed in a straight line from their distant space to a coveted bar stool or dining table.
What to do about Washington Avenue is Houston’s latest public policy discussion of what government’s role should be in growing business, in helping a fledgling business strip turn into a destination district.
The players all seem to want the same thing: Turnover at the restaurant tables, safe revelry in bars and clubs, pedestrians strolling a well-kept avenue and sprinkling their cash at the storefronts. All the while, people should be able to sleep through it two blocks away.
The city’s parking czar is rolling out plans for what he calls a parking benefit district, which would include residential parking permits to protect nearby homes, better lighting and security, and spruced-up sidewalks. It would be paid for by charging for spaces along the curb.
Don Pagel, whose official title is deputy director of Houston’s Department of Administration and Regulatory Affairs, says the avenue’s very success threatens to undermine its future. It is a Yogi Berra philosophy summed up in the Yankee legend’s oft-quoted remark that a New York restaurant “is so crowded nobody goes there anymore.”
Parking is a commodity, Pagel said, just like groceries or furniture, and should be priced accordingly to derive the maximum economic benefit. In practice, this means it should cost more when it is scarce. Charging for parking will not only bring in money that can be reinvested into the neighborhood, Pagel said, but it will ensure that the folks who have money to spend will get the premium spots at the curb. Someone who tries to avoid a $2 parking charge, Pagel suggests, is unlikely to spend $50 on dinner.
“Folks with the most money have the least amount of patience,” Pagel said. They will make one pass along Washington, he speculated, and if they don’t find a space they’ll move on to Montrose or Midtown.
‘It is a giant step’
Ricardo Molina, whose six-year-old restaurant bearing his name on Washington qualifies as a pioneering establishment in the avenue’s rebirth, has a view better represented by President Ronald Reagan‘s statement that “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’ ”
Molina said the so-called problem the city is trying to solve is clustered around bars three nights a week, but the solution hurts businesses along the entire length of Washington all week long. He opposes the installation of parking meters.
“They claim that creates turnover,” Molina said in reference to city officials. “We think it’s going to drive folks away.”
Restaurants that succeed – like his – and shops are the mainstays of a business district, he argued, and they should not be regulated out of existence by rules targeting late-night revelers.
On council agenda
On Thursday, Pagel’s plan goes to a City Council committee, and he hopes it will get on the full council agenda by the end of the year.
It calls for making it easier for a neighborhood to require permits to park on its streets to funnel bar and restaurant patrons back toward Washington. There they would find pay stations for using one of the street’s 350 curbside spaces for $2 an hour at night. The city would assign two parking enforcement officers and a meter mechanic to the parking benefit district.
City projections are for the meters to net $250,000 in the next 18 months and to rethink the project if that does not happen.
The future of Washington Avenue may hinge on the outcome. Pagel, Molina and Councilwoman Ellen Cohen, who supports the proposed city parking plan, all point to Richmond Avenue as a cautionary example of what can happen if Washington is poorly managed.
The Richmond Strip west of Loop 610 was especially popular in the 1990s, but Pagel and Molina have different interpretations of what led to its decline. Molina believes over- regulation on issues such as noise and traffic flow killed the golden goose that provided profits for club owners and sales tax revenues for the city.
Pagel suggested the disorder that arose from too many motorists, accompanied by a rise in crime, discouraged enough would-be visitors that the strip slowly dried up.
‘It is a giant step’
Speaking up for Washington Avenue area residents is Jane West, chair of the Superneighborhood 22 Council, who said whatever happens on Washington needs to stay on Washington, and not spill over onto the streets, lawns and bushes of her neighbors. Pagel’s plan is a good start, she said.
“It’s not going to resolve all of the issues, but it is a giant step in the right direction,” West said.
Councilwoman Cohen subscribes to Pagel’s view that parking can be an economic development tool.
Charging at the curb could incentivize developers to build parking garages, which in turn could lure restaurants and shops, she said. With a few rules and a few dozen pay stations, the city can give a push to Washington’s growing momentum.
“I think it’s going to be vibrant,” Cohen said. “It’s going to be safe. I think it’s going to be a destination for visitors. That’s what we hope. It may also attract more shopping venues.”