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Tuesday, April 4, 2000
Houston, Texas
Volume 65, Issue 125

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Westheimer Street Festival relocating

By T.L. Hall
Daily Cougar Staff

The Westheimer Street Festival will go on -- but not necessarily on Westheimer.

At this afternoon's Houston City Council meeting, festival organizer John Florez is expected to announce details of the plan to move the May 6-7 edition of his biannual street party to Allen Parkway, just outside downtown.

The move comes after City Council's January refusal to grant the necessary street closure permits for the festival to be held at its traditional home on lower Westheimer Road and a February vote to uphold that denial.

At the time the permits were denied, Florez said it would create a "Westheimer Street Festival in Exile" -- and it has. The May party will take place on the north side of Allen Parkway between Interstate 45 and Taft. Shuttle buses will circulate through downtown parking areas to transport people to and from the area.

With the proposed festival a little more than four weeks away, Florez has a great deal of work to do.

"We will make it in time, and in no way will the festival be different," Florez said. "It will still be free for the public to enjoy. It will still be held from noon until 7 p.m. on both days. It will have the same music, the same vendors. It will be good as, if not better than, previous festivals."

Among this year's attractions will be professional sky divers, in-line skating and skateboarding contests and at least two stages for live music performances. The new venue also has some shaded areas for the crowd, which Florez estimates will total more than 200,000.

The street festival began about 25 years ago as a block party but quickly grew into a Montrose neighborhood event. Because of increasing liability issues, the portion of the festival featuring local artists moved downtown in 1992, but the street festival itself remained in place.

Florez's group, the Westheimer Street Festival Corp., was organized in 1994 to sell city-approved beer sales permits that paid for necessities like portable toilets and clean-up. The festival continued to grow.

In 1995, At-Large City Councilwoman Annise D. Parker, who lives in the Montrose area, chaired a committee to forge a workable compromise between residents, who were unhappy with physical conditions, and promoters. A 15-point list of minimum standards on issues such as toilets, trash receptacles, cleaning crews and security for the event was worked out.

Despite her past willingness to negotiate a compromise, Parker voted against granting the festival's street closure permits this year.

"It is difficult to separate my history," Parker said. "I live in the neighborhood. I know all the people involved. But the festival has grown significantly. I just couldn't see any way for it to continue (in its present location)."

The City Council's denial of the closure permits came in the wake of changes made in June 1999 to the city's street functions code. The changes called for a public hearing to assess the extent of disruption of businesses and residences in the vicinity of a gathering like the Westheimer Street Festival.

The testimony given between Dec. 8 and 15, 1999, and on Jan. 5 of this year, reflected strong arguments from both sides.

Joe Ramunni, co-owner of Crossroads Market at 1111 Westheimer Road, on the western edge of the festival site, said the event hurt his business.

"You have the crowd-out effect," Ramunni said. "That many people, that much difficulty in parking, that much traffic and that much congestion keep the regular clientele away, resulting in a 50 percent drop in business."

Jeffrey Cole, a resident of the nearby Avondale neighborhood, said it was also hard on those who live in the area.

"The majority of residents on our street leave town during the festival," Cole said. "They don't like fighting the traffic and the crowds to get in and out of their driveways. Also, the noise is so deafening that for two solid days you (could not) think inside of your own home. It's just that bad."

Other area residents and business owners had similar complaints: Drunkenness, noise, trash and lewd behavior were givens around festival time, they said.

Nevertheless, the event also had its supporters.

"It allows different types of people to come together and enjoy themselves," said Richard Hernandez, a UH student. "I have personally never seen any trouble. And, if the people who live in that area have any problems, those problems happen all year long because of the number of restaurants and clubs (in the area)."

Florez conceded that the event had its problems. "We are victims of our own success," he said. ‘The more people that attend the festival, the more problems you are going to have."

Now that he has been found a new site for the event, Florez said he is relieved.

"I am elated that there will be less problems to deal with," he said. "In many ways, it's a better deal for everyone. And the publicity this has generated is worth $100,000."
 

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