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Congress Avenue businesses protest loss of parking for sidewalk dining

Tuesday, March 27, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

Though it passed on consent, City Council still heard opposition to a new pilot program that will take away precious downtown parking spaces on Congress Avenue.


The program is intended to transform parking into public space, advancing the ideals of a more walkable and bicycle-friendly downtown. The pilot program will establish a patio in front of the 609 Congress Avenue Royal Blue Grocery, where two parking spaces currently exist.


“I’m opposed to removing any parking spaces in downtown Austin. I’m opposed to removing any parking spaces on Congress Avenue. And I’m especially opposed to removing two parking spaces directly in front of my business,” said Bill Koen, of Joe Koen and Son Jewelers. His business has been at that location since 1972.


Koen told Council that, despite being a key stakeholder, neither he nor his neighbors were consulted on the plan.


“I’m happy that we have a thriving business and neighbor, like the grocery, on our block. But the rest of us, who have been in our current locations for 30, 40 and 53 years, are different types of businesses than the grocery. And it is essential that our clients are able to pull up and park in front of our locations,” said Koen.


Koen said that while he was all in favor of sidewalk dining, there was a difference between that and “removing the few precious spaces we have available.”


Elizabeth Wendland, who owns the business at 615 Congress Avenue, also spoke out against the program.


“On the 600 block, on the west side of the street, there are no parking spaces for the public. On the east side of the street we have ten parking spaces. Four are 15-minute spaces, and one is a handicapped space, leaving 5 spaces for eight businesses,” said Wendland.


Mayor Lee Leffingwell said that his understanding was that the program would be “parking space neutral,” and would add two more spaces to replace the two taken away.


“I certainly share your concerns, and that evaluation of the impact of losing those parking spaces for the future, if there is one, will certainly be a part of the study that goes along with the pilot program,” said Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who assured Wendland that they would be “paying a lot of attention” over the course of the pilot.


For her part, Council Member Kathie Tovo cited economic issues with the program.


“I understand the concerns that have been raised about the economics of this. That, in effect, we are taking two public spaces and for very little money we are converting them into additional square footage for a private business,” said Tovo. “How can the city be fairly compensated for those spaces, which become revenue-generating for a private business?”


“These are revenue-generating spots right now for the city, and certainly make in excess of what they are going to be leased out to Royal Blue Grocery for,” she said.


Royal Blue Grocery is receiving a fee-waiver of $8,925 to use the spots.


“We thought that the fee could be reduced down to, basically, the fee we recommended: $100. There is a public benefit that we believe we are gaining in terms of the pilot analysis we will be doing over the next year,” said City of Austin Transportation Director Robert Spillar.


Spillar confirmed that the fee was low, in part, because the patio to be created will need to be removed if the program is unsuccessful is an expense paid by the business.


City Council passed a more general item related to the pilot program as well. The program will explore the possibility of converting parking spaces into retail spaces as well as “variety of uses.”


Right now, the pilot program is only at this one location. A recommendation will come out of the program as to how to proceed by the end of this year, based on the results of the pilot.


Spillar told Council that if the program were to go forward ”there are certainly things, as a department, that we need to learn. For instance, how to deal with drainage, (and) how this affects the surrounding property owners.”

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