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Council gives tentative OK for North Loop pub project

Monday, March 2, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

It’s an interesting zoning case when Council decides just how weird Austin ought to be … as determined by its own zoning case approvals.

Sure, everyone has heard about that briefly proposed ordinance to protect iconic Austin businesses. But what about a potential local business owner – ready to put her own money on the line — who wants to start her own small iconic business in a local Austin neighborhood? Should the Council support it?

Pam Pritchard brought her case for an English-style pub in the North Loop neighborhood on North Loop Boulevard to Council last week. What made Pritchard’s case so interesting was both its location in the midst of other iconic local businesses – including bars — and the handful of supporters Pritchard brought to the hearing, credible people who were more than willing to testify to Pritchard’s character and dedication to her own business, as well as Pritchard’s willingness to put together a good idea that could serve a neighborhood.

Laurie Kelly, Pritchard’s friend of 35 years, testified to Pritchard’s fortitude. Pritchard had visited European pubs, joined entrepreneurial groups and scoured Austin’s neighborhoods for her perfect pub location: a place with a diversity of residents, a variety of residential and commercial establishments and none of the evil corporate franchises that trouble other Austin neighborhoods.

“She found her home there,” said Kelly. “She has invested so much of herself into this property. You will like what she plans to do. She believes so strongly that the façade needs to be pleasing, the floors need to be clean, and the plumbing needs to work.”

If anyone was going to be an asset to the neighborhood, it was Pritchard, Kelly said. Pritchard had presented the plan for her business to the local neighborhood association, rather earnestly, at least three times. Even as Pritchard continued to meet her neighbors, she decided the neighborhood was a good fit for her.

“I like this neighborhood,” Pritchard said. “I’ve felt more and more that it’s a good fit for me. My target customer is someone who is between 30 and 60, who lives in the neighborhood. Presently, there’s no space for them to have a drink. This is a neighborhood that serves more of a youthful group.”

If anyone could have described what might have been an ideal “Keep Austin Weird” business, this would be it: an English-style pub, minus the grub, on East North Loop Boulevard. Pritchard, who had toiled over the idea for 15 months, intended to be the sole employee of the establishment. In fact, this would be Pritchard’s life dream, a tiny 770-square-foot hole-in-the-wall that would serve an older clientele that simply wanted an adult place to sit down for a few minutes and drink a pint of ale.

Not only that, the idea of a neighborhood “pub” was clearly favored by the North Loop neighborhood plan, mentioned three times as the type of eclectic business the underutilized neighborhood hoped to attract.

Pritchard’s proposed space, 770 square feet of commercial space to be zoned CS-1, would be only a third of a shopping center.

So, is there a point where too much of a good idea exists, where, upon consideration, one too many liquor establishments might exist in a neighborhood plan area? Is there a point where neighbors might determine that two, three or four bars in a neighborhood – nine years after the plan was initiated — are enough?

For all those who thought it might be a great idea – including the owner of the local Mediterranean restaurant – there were those pointing to an increase in crime in the North Loop area in the last year. Who wants to add another establishment that sells alcohol along a stretch of road that already has seen two murders in recent memory as well as various drinking offenses?

Neighbor Jim Mansour, like a handful of others on hand who opposed the plan, said he had nothing against Pritchard. Still, this is a street where a number of businesses already serve liquor to cater to customers, including The Parlor, The Flying Saucer and Barfly’s. Where is the grocery store, restaurants or florist? Mansour asked. Those were all recommended in the North Loop neighborhood plan.

Even those things that appear to be a good idea in the first place sometimes do end up being a disaster, Mansour said. A coffee shop initially sounded like a great addition to the North Loop neighborhood, Mansour said. Instead, it was a disaster. Given all the pluses and minuses in the case, a split North Loop neighborhood had no position on Pritchard’s business plan.

Council did get into a discussion as to what the idea of a proposed “pub” might have conjured up in the North Loop neighborhood plan – would it serve food or not serve food? – but Council Member Lee Leffingwell noted that even the pubs he knew that had served food had served less than 40 percent food. That will be something for city staff to research before the zoning change comes back for second reading.

At the final vote on the zoning change, the decision went something like this: Council Member Laura Morrison said she understood a cool neighborhood retail area but questioned how often the city should be issuing the up-zoned CS-1 designation intended for liquor sales. She noted a number of recent cases. Morrison offered a motion to deny the zoning change, which Council Member Randi Shade seconded.

Council Member Mike Martinez agreed with Morrison’s concerns but separated those from the case at hand. Yes, the zoning classification of CS-1 probably needed to be revisited, in terms of bar uses. On the other hand, this was an area where the “Keep Austin Weird” moniker lived and should be maintained.

“I just think in this case it’s not so detrimental or harmful,” Martinez said. “We’re not talking about a 25,000 square-foot facility. We’re talking a 770-square-foot bar – a small neighborhood establishment – where you grab a pint. I picture a lot of people who walk in from the neighborhood, maybe waiting for a table to eat at a local restaurant.”

Martinez did, finally, offer his own substitute motion to support the proposal and affirm CS-1 zoning, with some intention of reviewing the intentions of the North Loop neighborhood plan before second reading. While there was some talk of filing a restrictive covenant on the property – a point raised and noted by Mayor Pro Tem Brewster McCrackenCouncil Member Lee Leffingwell noted that restrictive covenants on properties were, in most cases, all but meaningless.

Leffingwell said he was ready to given initial approval but that future approval on 2nd and 3rd reading would be based upon the intent of the neighborhood plan. What, exactly, was the North Loop planning team’s preferences when talking about a local pub? That will be back at Council at second reading.

With all the arguments made, the final vote was 4-2, in favor of the CS-1 zoning on first reading only. Those in favor included Leffingwell, McCracken, Cole and Martinez. Those opposed ended up being Shade and Morrison. Wynn was out of town.

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