By Chris Teale (Photo/Chris Teale)
The long-vacant building at 4141 Duke St. will go from providing burgers and fries to potentially life-saving medical care.
Fresenius Medical Care will absorb the neighboring former Fuddruckers restaurant space on the West End after earning city council’s unanimous approval on January 30. The medical clinic specializes in kidney dialysis and has operated in the city since 1973, moving to its current location in 1991.
The expansion will give Fresenius an extra 7,338 square feet, allowing it to treat an estimated 200 patients a week in a total space of 19,630 square feet, according to a report filed by city staff.
Since its closure in 2012, the former eatery has sat empty, albeit with its signage still visible and advertising other locations. Fuddruckers is a franchised chain that specializes in hamburgers. According to its website, it has more than 180 locations in the United States and internationally, including in Canada, the Dominican Republic, Italy, Mexico and Poland.
But residents in the nearby Seminary Hill and Strawberry Hill neighborhoods protested the loss of restaurant space in the area. At an earlier hearing on the project, resident Peter Glock noted the space is zoned Commercial/Community, not for medical use. Fresenius operates as a non-complying use on the property.
“It seems to me to set a dangerous precedent in the city, that if you could hold off on getting a tenant for a couple of years, you could effectively rezone,” Glock said at the planning commission’s January 5 public hearing. Glock argued allowing the expansion would “fundamentally change the commercial options in our neighborhood.”
Glock accused property owners Greentree Partners LLC of failing to advertise the vacancy effectively, given that Fuddruckers signage remains visible on the highly-trafficked Duke Street.
“There is no ‘Now Leasing’ sign or ‘Space Available’ sign or phone number on the building,” he said. “The Fuddruckers sign has remained up for the past two, two-and-a-half years indicating other locations to go to a Fuddruckers. There has never been a ‘Now for Lease’ [message] or a phone number for an available space there.”
Alex Dambach, division chief in the department of planning and zoning, said while he did not know the details of the property owner’s marketing strategy, he knew it was being promoted to potential tenants.
At city council’s public hearing, City Councilor Del Pepper said while she understood the desire for a restaurant, the property owner could not leave it vacant forever.
“I’d love to have a restaurant there myself, but that doesn’t look like that’s going to be happening,” she said. “It’s not cheap to have a property like that just sitting there; that is why I made the motion for approval. I understand why neighbors might feel that they want a restaurant, but it’s a huge area.”
Pepper and City Councilor John Chapman both spoke of their desire to improve the building’s frontage on Duke Street, and Chapman also favored utilizing the property’s 114 parking spaces in partnership with other businesses.
Ann Horowitz, a planner in the department of planning and zoning, said the applicant agreed to examine the landscaping, while Fresenius’ director of operations for the location, Debbie Simmons, said different parking options could be explored.
“We don’t use a lot of the parking spaces we have now, because a lot of our patients are transported,” she said. “Not too many dialysis patients drive, so a lot of them use medical transport.”
In their deliberations, planning commissioners asked if the area will be discussed as part of a master plan process in the near future, given the lack of zoning cogency in the area.
“This particular section of Duke Street has, in my judgement, about all of the zoning coherence of Houston, Texas,” said commissioner David Brown. “That’s not a compliment. We have single-family residences hard by commercial.”
But city planning director Karl Moritz said that any discussions must go hand-in-hand with the expansion of high-capacity transit, since Duke Street is slated to host the second of three proposed bus rapid transit corridors, along with the area near U.S. Route 1 and Beauregard and Van Dorn streets. Moritz said any new master plan covering the Duke Street area would likely not take place for at least another five years.