Fighting city hall

Parking at a Reno restaurant became the sticking point for its future

Jeannine Higgins ponders the parking spaces that have become an obstacle to the smooth operation of her restaurant at its location in a neighborhood with few parking places.

Jeannine Higgins ponders the parking spaces that have become an obstacle to the smooth operation of her restaurant at its location in a neighborhood with few parking places.

Photo By David Robert

When Jeannine and Greg Higgins opened Voila Café and Catering, they never thought their business would be jeopardized by a small 8-feet-by-12-feet piece of property. This week, the well being of their Voila Café and the jobs of 7-10 employees who work there, will all hinge on the city of Reno’s decision whether to allow the leasing of a single parking spot, which the café needs in order to meet city ordinances. If the spot is denied, the cease and desist order issued by the city will uphold the shutdown of the cafe.

Voila is a small cafe and catering business squeezed on the south side of California Avenue between Gordon and Arlington avenues. On a normal Saturday, Voila is filled with people. The sound of music and conversation resonates through the modern-country-style walls while chefs, waiters and waitresses serve customers a variety of unique foods. Last Saturday, the cafe was empty and quiet. Vases of water still sat on the tables, slowly evaporating until the cafe reopens to the public, while a bundle of page-long apology letters sat in a basket at the front door to explain to customers why they’re not open.

The Higgins started Voila in 2001, strictly for catering. A friend and then-owner of the property allowed them to remodel the back half of the building into a large kitchen, where two cooks could create dish after dish of elegant cuisine. As the business continued to grow, more and more customers suggested that they open a restaurant. That suggestion took shape in 2004 after Jeannine and Greg bought the entire building with the intention of expanding Voila into a restaurant. To do this, Jeannine and Greg would have to make some changes to the property in order to comply with city parking requirements.

Jeannine was told by the city that the parking area directly in front of the building would need to be taken out as it posed a risk to drivers backing out into California Avenue, a major street.

“They knew that we were in a parking crunch,” Jeannine said, “but then they required us to take out the parking in the front, which we did, and landscaped.”

According to Jeannine, a city planner assured them that if they took out the parking, the city would allow the restaurant to use the extra space for outdoor dining. The Higgins’ thought it was a fair trade, so they turned the parking spaces into an outdoor patio.

Later, the city came back and said the original business plan did not include outdoor dining. This means if the cafe reopens, it won’t be allowed outdoor dining unless they apply for a new variance, which would cost $4,125.

The city also required that Jeannine apply for a new parking variance, unless she could provide for the additional four parking spots in her current variance. The Higgins’ were faced with more variance charges, so they decided to lease the four spots in order to avoid applying for yet another variance.

Before opening the new cafe section, Gary Kasden, owner of the Arlington Professional Building on the corner of California and Arlington, offered to lease Voila four spaces in its west parking section, a noncontiguous lot which is on the other side of Voila Café from the Arlington Professional Building. It appeared the problems had been solved.

But once the cafe opened, disputes arose between Kasden’s tenants and Voila regarding customer parking. In order to please tenants, Kasden decided not to renew the parking lease, in part because he said the café did not act to limit its customers to four spaces in the lot.

“In the beginning, I went out of my way to write letters to the city to get her business permit,” Kasden said. “She was supposed to police the lot, and she didn’t—this was in the lease agreement.”

As the new business picked up, cars began filling up all available spaces. Kasden began receiving letters from his tenants complaining about a lack of parking due to Voila’s customers. Kasden now spends money from his own pocket on security to police his area of the lot.

“I have spent $13,821.26 because of somebody’s screw-up,” Kasden said. “That’s what it costs to maintain my guard service—to keep my tenants happy.”

Kasden also feels that the city is responsible for giving a business a permit that can’t sustain its own parking.

“Even if I decided to renew her lease, my parking was maxed out,” Kasden added. “I didn’t have the right to get her those spaces originally, and the planning department approved it anyway.”

According to Claudia Hanson, deputy director of community development for the city of Reno, this incident is not uncommon for small businesses. Neighbors will often start complaining about parking once a business grows enough to cause parking problems to increase around such a tight area.

“I was getting a couple people a day calling about parking,” Hanson said.

In an attempt to abide by the parking requirement, Jeannine managed to get three additional spots leased by surrounding businesses, leaving her with one more spot to satisfy her total spot requirement.

“Ever since June, I’ve been in violation of code for the restaurant because I’m one parking space short,” Jeannine said.

Jeannine made the decision to continue operating with the hope that the city could rezone the area so they would not be held to their current parking requirement. However, she did not apply for a zoning change. Meanwhile, the city had to keep conducting inspections to evaluate whether the business had come into compliance. The city fined Voila about $14,000 in various fines for breaking city ordinance and charges for reevaluation.

“Typically, they go out every other day to reevaluate, but we only went out about once a week,” Hanson said. “We could have been much stricter.”

After Voila’s business license was renewed in February, Jeannine was ordered to attend a hearing to show why her license shouldn’t be suspended.

“The irony is nobody parks in these parking spaces, nobody knows other than a few of us that those parking spaces are available for people to park in,” Jeannine said. “It’s just a requirement that the city has.”

While Jeannine waits on the city to accept a parking spot, her employees sit at home waiting for the cafe to reopen.

“I have five different waitresses on the weekends, another waitress that works on weekdays and cooks,” Jeannine said. “I have seven to 10 people who are going to be out of work.”

Single mother Karen Mackay is a manager at Voila. She has been feeling growing stress since Voila received its last cease and desist order.

“I feel like I’m in limbo,” Mackay said. “This is the fourth time we’ve been shut down.”

The cafe was shut down three times prior to their last cease and desist order for lack of parking.

According to Hanson, every time Voila is offered a space to rent from a surrounding business, the city has to go out and inspect the space. So far, the spaces have been either too far away or not the right size.

Mackay is frustrated by the city’s refusal to accept multiple offers made by surrounding businesses to lease additional parking spaces.

“The city has denied multiple parking places,” Mackay said. “This is my job, my life—I don’t know what to do.”