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Council denies zoning for new Sixth Street bar east of I-35

Wednesday, September 28, 2011 by Josh Rosenblatt

City Council weighed in on the thorny issue of development in the budding East Sixth Street “entertainment” district at its meeting Thursday, voting unanimously to deny the construction of a cocktail lounge in a neighborhood that has seen an explosion of them in the past five years.


The proposed Dram Shop would have been a 2,500-square-foot bar built on a vacant lot at 907 East Sixth Street, approximately two blocks east of I-35. That places the property in the Plaza Saltillo Transit Oriented District, where a conditional use permit is required to open a cocktail lounge. The applicant, Brandon Testa, was also requesting approval of a variance to allow parking for cocktail lounges within 200 feet of family residences. The development would have included one handicap-accessible parking space on site and 18 additional offsite spaces located in two existing parking lots.


George Zapalac of the Planning and Development Review Department said staff recommended approval of the plan to the Planning Commission “because it is located within two blocks of 35 and surrounded by commercial and industrial development … We also supported the variance to allow parking within 200 feet of the single family residences because the homes are located on the opposite side of East 7th Street, which is a major arterial.”


The Planning Commission, however, was unable to achieve a quorum vote on the conditional use permit, and since they took no action, the application was denied.


On Thursday Testa appeared at City Hall to request that Council overturn the Planning Commission’s denial and allow the project to go forward. Testa said he was looking for Council support despite the disapproval of the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Planning Team, which he said, “has developed a blanket policy regarding cocktail lounge permits.”


“Attacking a single small-business owner is not an effective way to solve the problem of development on the East side,” said Testa. “We must allow entrepreneurs to be creative. Every project will not fit into a cookie-cutter mold.”


Testa said he had tried to compromise with the planning team, even offering to include a grease trap in construction plans and guaranteeing that 20 percent of his business’ revenue would come from food sales. That offer, he said, was turned down.


Susan Benz, Sector 8 resident representative for the planning team, told Council that she and her group are against any new cocktail lounge conditional use permits in the area.


“The existing cocktail lounges serve more than the neighborhood’s demand. We don’t want to become a drinking destination,” Benz said, pointing out that there are already 14 bars within the district. Her team is calling for more dense mixed-use development instead.


“The team is not anti-development and we have supported projects that fit within the neighborhood plan,” said Benz. “Our planning team is trying to avoid being turned into the kind of bar scene on West Sixth and Rainey Street.”


In making a motion to deny Testa’s appeal, Council Member Chris Riley echoed Benz’s concerns about crowding developing neighborhoods with bars.


“Cocktail lounges can have a particularly troublesome effect in regard to maintaining a healthy mix of uses on a street,” Riley said. “In my view, this use actually would have a clearly more adverse effect that permitted uses. That’s what we’ve seen elsewhere and that’s what the neighbors are telling us we’d see.”


Council Member Mike Martinez pointed out that the zoning strictures of the Plaza Saltillo district give city officials the opportunity to ensure that the East Sixth Street area is developed in a way that prevents it from becoming a new Rainey Street. He said the Rainey Street neighborhood has been strained by property owners “taking advantage” of its Central Business District zoning classification.


“In this area of East Sixth we actually have the tools in place to bring this conversation forward,” Martinez said. “I like East Sixth Street … (but) we need a mix of uses as opposed to just this constant proliferation of bars. We need to make sure we’re not inundating certain parts of town with just a single kind of use.”


Council voted 7-0 to deny the appeal. Meanwhile, staff has posted an item with the Planning Commission’s Codes and Ordinances subcommittee that would call for the temporary prohibition of cocktail lounges within TODs as well as a prohibition on off-site parking for cocktail lounges.

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