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Council seems likely to decline proposed Starbucks at ABIA

Friday, October 3, 2003 by

Worries about diluting local flavor dominate discussion

Yesterday, the City Council postponed for one week a decision on allowing Starbucks to open a coffee shop and Internet cafe at Austin Bergstrom International Airport (ABIA). ABIA staff and members of the Airport Advisory Commission recommended approval. However, Council members were reluctant to allow the national chain to tamper with the local flavor of the shops and restaurants at ABIA.

The spot proposed for the Starbucks is currently operated as a business center for travelers, offering computer access, e-mail, fax and banking services. But Stacy Dukes Rhone with the Austin Airport Business Center Group told Council members that a drop in air travel following 9/11 severely affected their business in both Austin and San Antonio. “Business services are not doing very well, and have not done very well since 9/11,” she said. “The San Antonio business center is plummeting right now . . . they’re struggling to survive.” The group has a long-term lease, but is proposing to sublease the space to another business, allowing Dukes Rhone to continue some of the services currently offered, with a cup of Starbucks on the side. The subleasing company, Charles Bush Entertainment, is willing to pay an annual fee of $64,000 for the concession rights, a dramatic increase over the amount currently paid by the Austin Airport Business Center Group.

Several Council members expressed strong reservations about the idea. “A lot of people worked for a long time to make sure the airport had an Austin flavor to it,” said Council Member Daryl Slusher. “When we said we wanted to have the local flavor at the airport, a lot of folks said it couldn’t be done. Well, it got done, and I’m concerned that by moving a Starbucks in to be one of the first things that you see when you go into the airport . . . that really, really hurts our efforts.” Both Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman and Council Member Brewster McCracken joined Slusher, saying they were leaning against allowing a national chain to take over the spot.

Slusher urged the business center to take further steps to seek out local business partners, perhaps through an open bidding process. The group has already gone to current contractors at the airport including the main concession contractor, CA-1, said Dukes Rhone. “We have spoken with all of the vendors that are currently there. We made an offer,” she said. “Most of the local guys that are there . . . we’re all struggling. We also talked with Ruta Maya, and we couldn’t get to a successful agreement.” The cost of doing business at the airport, she noted, is high. “It is a huge investment to build out a concession in an airport.”

The Council agreed to postpone the contract amendment proposal for one week to allow Dukes Rhone to provide more information. From the comments made during Thursday’s meeting, it appears that information will need to be extremely persuasive for the change to be considered. “We need to make a strong effort to preserve the policy we have at the airport, which is to promote local businesses,” said McCracken. “It’s really important that the airport be a showcase for Austin-based businesses. My sense is there won’t be any problem from the Council if it’s a locally-based coffee shop . . . I think the concern is that we would undermine a policy we’re trying to preserve at the entire airport of promoting locally-based businesses.” .

More praise given Wal-Mart, Endeavor

Mayor warns community that tract's future still not settled

Local environmental leaders and City Council members joined forces on Thursday to offer their thanks to Wal-Mart for dropping its plans to build a new store at MoPac and Slaughter. And while their praise for the retailer was effusive, they also noted that the tract in question could still be developed at levels much higher than those allowed by current standards.

“Wal-Mart and Endeavor have both announced they will be withdrawing from the potential development of that site,” said Mayor Will Wynn. “We’re here to applaud them and thank them for that decision. I and the other Council members have received dozens . . . if not hundreds . . . of emails congratulating us and thanking us. I would like to suggest to the citizens that they send a nice note to both Endeavor and Wal-Mart for ultimately making this decision.” Because of a legal settlement in the 1996, the property has grandfathered development rights, and no zoning change was being sought for the project. “Over the past months . . . we’ve come to have a further appreciation for this special location and its unique position in the recharge zone of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer,” said Wal-Mart spokesperson Daphne Moore. “We clearly saw that pursuing this location would hamper our larger efforts to serve this community as a whole.” Wal-Mart is pursuing zoning changes for tracts at I-35 and Ben White and I-35 and Slaughter in order to build two new stores.

The community response to the possibility of a big-box retail store over the recharge zone has sparked hope among some environmental leaders that public pressure can play a role in the future development of the area. “I hope that we’ve kind of set a precedent here in Austin of how we go about engaging in responsible community dialogue about this sensitive development issue,” said Bob Breunig, executive director of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Research Center. “I hope that others who would consider building in Southwest Austin over the aquifer would look very deeply at their sites and at their plans and try to conform to community norms about how that landscape should be handled.”

As for the MoPac and Slaughter location, development entitlements will remain with the tract. Both Wal-Mart and Endeavor Real Estate are giving up their options on the tract, which is owned by SR Ridge Limited Partnership of Pleasant Valley, Arizona. Wynn said he would have preferred for Endeavor to maintain its contract on the property since the company has shown a willingness to negotiate with the city. “But I fully respect and completely understand Endeavor’s decision to also leave that contract,” he said. “I will work to continue the dialogue with the property owner or whoever else might step up and figure out how, and if, this property can be developed in an environmentally sound way.”

Proposed changes to restaurant rules raise neighborhood fears

Problems with mobile food vendor make South Austin wary

The city’s new concept of limited restaurants near residential areas is either a great opportunity for local business or a tremendous pox upon city neighborhoods.

The combination of business growth and residential objections is a common theme in Austin zoning cases. Right now, city staff is grappling with how the City Code can be streamlined to encourage business. One concept is collapsing fast food and limited restaurant concepts into one zoning category.

The concept would be to allow take-out food and no alcohol in these new limited-service restaurants, with conditional-use permits for extended hours and drive-through service near residential areas, primarily single-family residential areas of SF-5 density or lower. The new definition would also give the city a chance to limit outdoor seating to only half the number sitting inside, Manager Greg Guernsey told the Planning Commission last week.

It all sounded pretty good. The plan would give local restaurant owners the chance to locate in LR zoning areas, otherwise known as neighborhood commercial areas. It provides some controls the city has not exercised in the past over certain restaurants.

The sticking point is that the city’s one foray into limited-service restaurants—a mobile food vendor turned restaurant—has been a miserable failure. South Austin residents who showed up at the Planning Commission last week accused the city of creating the new limited-restaurant category to get out from under the trouble it had created with a South Austin taqueria.

Time and again, the topic returned to mobile food vendors, although Chair Lydia Ortiz said the intention of the Planning Commission was to encourage small business, not to address the problem of one limited service restaurant in South Austin.

Consultant Sarah Crocker, who represented the neighborhood in the taqueria fight, said she didn’t blame the city for trying to balance the interests of business and neighborhoods, but encouraged the city to look carefully at the language of the draft ordinance. Under the proposed language, a restaurant as large as an IHOP could go into “LR” zoning.

Crocker suggested that the Planning Commission limit the size of the restaurant and the hours of operation to no later than 10pm. She also encouraged the commission to consider the buffer issue between homes and restaurants. Most restaurants do a good job, Crocker told the commission, but neighborhoods need to be protected from operators “who don’t do such a good job.”

As Commissioner Cynthia Medlin predicted in the Codes and Ordinances subcommittee meeting on the subject, speakers at the commission hearing returned time and again to the traffic and noise they believed would be created by putting restaurants next to local neighborhoods. Even the limitation on hours—opening at 6am and closing at 11pm—did little to appease homeowners who were concerned by the new zoning category.

Tim Mahoney, president of the South River City Citizens Association, said South Austin’s anxiety was based on the reality of the area’s experiences with restaurants. He said the commission should consider an appeals process for limited restaurants. Such a process would go a long way “to make us feel better,” Mahoney said. He also encouraged the commissioners to take the limited restaurant concept to the Austin Neighborhoods Council for review and comment.

“I think this amendment is a good place to start, but I would respectfully request that we have additional input,” said Mahoney. “Once we feel safe about this, we can join in with you.”

The hearing on the limited restaurant proposal then closed, with the Planning Commission declining to make a recommendation on the proposal. The topic will be up for discussion again next week. After the meeting, Ortiz said the commission had requested more information from staff. The Codes and Ordinances subcommittee will meet again on today to talk about the issue. Ortiz said the Limited Restaurant proposal and the changes in parking requirements were easily the two most controversial of the staff’s seven zoning changes to encourage small businesses.

Commissioner Maggie Armstrong, chair of the commission’s codes and ordinances committee, said the committee would look at the issues once again at noon today before deciding on a final recommendation to the full commission.

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

Energy efficiency program receives grant . . . Yesterday the Council voted to accept a $100,000 grant from the Federal Department of Energy to expand the Austin Energy residential home efficiency rebate and loan program. The funds will be used for contractor training, certification, diagnostic testing, performance modeling and marketing of the program . . . No contested zoning cases heard . . . The City Council agreed with Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman’s suggestion that they not consider a case involving a valid petition, with Council Member Raul Alvarez absent. Since all six Council members present would have to approve the zoning change, Mayor Will Wynn set the case, which involves a request from Eckerd’s Pharmacy, for next Thursday when a full Council is expected . . . Appointments . . . Council Member Daryl Slusher appointed Tere O’Connell to the Historic Landmark Task Force. Chris Riley was reappointed by Council Member Brewster McCracken to the Planning Commission and Carl Huntley was reappointed by consensus to the Downtown Commission. Patrick Reinhart will join the Ethics Review Commission as Slusher’s appointment. Ashton Cumberbatch has resigned. Mayor Will Wynn reappointed Kathryn Houser to the Resource Management Commission . . . Late hours petition rejected . . . A petition to repeal Round Rock’s late-hours drinking ordinance has been deemed insufficient by city officials. Petitioners learned that 353 of the 1658 signatures on a repeal petition could not be validated. The petitioners have an extra two weeks to collect additional signatures and file an amended petition with the City Secretary. The petitioners need 1,695 signatures of qualified Round Rock voters. Of the invalid signatures, 114 could not be verified as qualified voters and 239 were on petitions circulated by persons who were not members of the Petitioners’ Committee, according to Will Hampton, City of Round Rock spokesman . . . Free concert today . . . The Eggmen, whose music is described as Beatles/60’s review, will perform at Frost Bank Plaza today at noon. Next Friday’s lunch special will be swing music with Bryan Thym & The Time Machine, and on October 17 Tiburon will play salsa. The concerts are a project of the Downtown Austin Alliance..

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