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Planning Commission OKs conditional use permits for live theater

Monday, July 16, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

Despite some misgivings, the City of Austin’s Planning Commission last week carefully approved the conditional-use permits for a cocktail lounge and off-site parking for The Vortex, an East Austin live theater.


The commissioners struggled to make it clear that, while they supported The Vortex’s request to boost their business by serving liquor, they had reservations about granting a cocktail lounge such a large space to operate near a residential area. The Vortex is located at 2307 Manor Road, between Maple and Chestnut avenues, near many single-family homes.


Zoning changes stay with the land, not the business, so if The Vortex ever closed, the cocktail lounge, called the “Butterfly Bar,” could remain. Artistic Director and owner Bonnie Cullum promised to neighbors that, should the theater ever close, she would downzone the property.


“I would encourage you not to place restrictions on the arts,” said Cullum “If you want to say what art can and cannot go or what hours and where, I feel like that is a whole other piece.


“I don’t even want to be a cocktail lounge. I just want to be a theater with a bar. There’s no way to do that in the city of Austin. I’m kind of stuck on this,” said Cullum.


But the commission voted 5-1 to approve a conditional-use permit, adding restrictions that state The Vortex will operate primarily as a performance space, serving alcoholic beverages as a cocktail lounge, and stipulating that the bar stop serving liquor after midnight and that there be no outside amplified sound after 10pm. Three Commissioners were absent from the meeting: Dave Anderson, Richard Hatfield and Jean Stevens.


“We’re not trying to be antagonistic to your business opportunities,” said Commissioner Saundra Kirk. But she said entertainment and outdoor music “in some cases … infringes on the livability standards for the people that surround those events. So, since your event is kind of nestled within a neighborhood, we’re just trying to make sure that you can stay in business and you do what you love and what you’re there to do … as opposed to everything else that is a possibility.”


The 18-year-old theater has served beer and wine for seven years and it has an after-hours permit, which allows the space to serve alcohol until 2am. Cullum explained that they have always stopped serving alcohol at midnight in the past, and had no intention of changing that practice.


According to The Vortex’s website, “The Butterfly Bar emerged from its cocoon on Feb.19, 2011” and has an expansive outdoor area. The bar is separate from the theater and is open until midnight. Last August, selected the Butterfly as one of “Austin’s newest hotspots.”


The sole vote against the conditional-use permits came from Commissioner Alfonso Hernandez, who objected to the permits’ conditions.


“I just think it’s extremely difficult to run this kind of business and to have succeeded for so long, and it seems like it’s actually getting better. … I think adding additional restrictions or conditions might make it more difficult to run that business, and I’m sympathetic to that,”  Hernandez said. “I think we should give the applicant some credit for having run the business in the way that she told her neighbors she would.”


“Sometimes businesses have to adapt or they die, and when we put restrictions on it, yes, I agree to some extent, it’s protecting the neighborhood. But also, to some extent, it’s restricting businesses’ ability to adapt, and that’s what I’m concerned about,” Hernandez added.


Kirk said: “At some point it pays to be a little predictive and know that we’re trying to avoid what could be some negative outcomes by taking her at her word. As they say, ‘trust, but verify’.”

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