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Eastside cocktail lounge fails to gain Planning Commission backing

Thursday, August 4, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

The Planning Commission last week declined to recommend Council approval for a conditional use permit for a cocktail lounge in the East Cesar Chavez neighborhood, due at least in part to neighborhood opposition.


That vote, which required a super-majority of the commission, was complicated by the fact that one chair was vacant and Commissioner Mandy Dealey was absent. Votes to deny and delay the permit failed 4-3 and 3-4, respectively, short by one vote each, which left Chair Dave Sullivan to say it would be up to staff to determine how the case would proceed forward to Council, which would have final say on the issue.


The case, however, might have exposed a potential zoning loophole. Zoning categories in TODs, or transit-oriented development districts, are intentionally lax to allow high-density development. That latitude also seems to allow a high concentration of liquor establishments.


The East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Association was not eager, however, to welcome that sort of development progress when it came to the proposed Dram Shop at 907 E. Sixth.


“We have more bars per square foot than any other neighborhood in Austin,” local activist Lori Renteria told the commission, noting that CS-1 zoning allowed liquor sales for a total of 84 properties along the E. Sixth Street corridor. “Let’s not try to add more. We wanted an arts-and-entertainment mixed-use district in this area. We already agreed 11 years ago that we had enough bars. Please, no more bars. Don’t let DAA kick all these honky-tonk yuppie bars out of downtown so all of them can congregate east of the Interstate.”


That was the neighborhood’s view. On the other side, energetic young owner Brandon Testa and allied local small businesses around his property considered an upscale cocktail lounge with food service on what is now a parking lot to be a welcome addition to a neighborhood plagued with vagrancy and homelessness.


As one speaker in favor of the permit pointed out, more than 452 police calls had been made to the Austin Police Department regarding the 900 block of East Sixth Street in the last year, activity that frequently disrupted local activity.


“This property shares the alley with Rogue Running,” said employee Hannah Zimmerman. “We have running groups at Rogue that frequently encounter transients, drunks and drug dealers. Our running groups have broken up numerous fights on the site…. Our customers fully support the immediate development of this property. It’s a neglected, blighted and dangerous lot that can provide additional taxable revenue to the city.”


Neighborhood leaders, however, were opposed to just one more bar along East Sixth Street in an area already flush with too many night and weekend visitors. Property owner Susan Benz insisted the one thing the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Planning Team had stressed in its neighborhood plan along those blocks was the need to stop the proliferation of bars on East 6th Street.


“We don’t need that,” Benz told the Planning Commission. “We don’t need the section of Sixth Street west of IH-35 to ooze its way over to our neighborhood.”


Commissioners Danette Chimenti and Saundra Kirk found an ally in David Anderson on Tuesday night, as Anderson hammered Testa for his choice to pursue off-site parking requirements for the Dram Shop. Testa leased parking space in businesses across the street, which Anderson found questionable.


And as it was revealed in testimony, on-site and off-site parking requirements differ. On-site parking cannot be within 200 feet of single-family residences; off-site parking, however, has no similar requirements. That raised a flag with a number of Planning Commission members, including Anderson.


“There’s a danger in off-site parking,” Anderson said. “If the lease goes, or the tenant moves unexpectedly, then there’s no mechanism to go back and make sure that parking is available for a business.”


According to staff, lapses in parking leases would require notification of the city. Timely action, however, might rely on complaints from local residents.


But commissioners noted that they had no authority to draw the line when and where on cocktail lounges, as long as they were permitted under current zoning.


As Commissioner Tina Bui noted, it was impossible for the commission to decide where and when cocktail lounges started and stopped, by fiat. Chair Dave Sullivan suggested that might be a limitation left for Council.

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