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Creative parking idea may offer solution for Casa du Luz

Wednesday, December 12, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

Austin Council Member Chris Riley crafted a creative solution at last week’s Council meeting that he hopes would allow businesses near city parks to use under-utilized city lots in exchange for making park improvements.


Such a change could be a solution for Casa de Luz, a macrobiotic restaurant near Butler Shores Park that has been targeted for possible closure because, among other things, it doesn’t provide enough parking for its patrons to meet the city’s minimum parking requirements for eateries.

After a protracted discussion at Thursday’s Council’s meeting, members ended up voting to approve a resolution to allow businesses to use under-utilized city lots at parks.


City Council voted 5-2 in favor of the resolution, with Council Members Laura Morrison and Kathie Tovo voting in opposition. City Council still must vote on a completed ordinance for any changes to take effect, and that must be done before the end of March.


For years, Casa de Luz, at 1701 Toomey Road, has struggled to provide guests with adequate parking. The situation has not improved with all the development in the area near South Lamar and Barton Springs Road.


For just as long, people visiting the restaurant have informally, and illegally, used the city’s lot at Butler Shores. The resolution brought by Riley was an attempt to legitimize this tradition. The basic idea: in exchange for the parking, private businesses would make park improvements. In an ideal world, this would mean an end to parking problems for Casa de Luz and a little something extra for the city.


However, Morrison expressed concerns that the ordinance would break too much new ground, and worried about the precedent of offering citywide use of parkland for commercial purposes.


Council members were also concerned about term “underutilized” parking lots as applied to city parks. Council Member Bill Spelman assessed the situation, saying: “All of our parking lots are underutilized most of the time, and very, very heavily utilized some of the time. This is a situation where when we need it, we absolutely need it. … But the vast majority of the hours of the day we don’t have anyone in there and it would be perfectly ok for customers to have it.”


Tovo said that she was “very uncomfortable with this broad-brush proposal,” and asked that the city Parks and Recreation Department discuss the matter with Casa de Luz directly in the hopes of reaching a narrower solution.


Clearly frustrated, perhaps by the possibility of running into yet another wall, Riley explained the city’s options. “We did not come to this recommendation lightly,” said Riley, who reminded his fellow Council members that discussions about Casa de Luz’s parking had been going on for years, and there had been dozens of meetings on the subject already. “Everything else we could come up with ran into walls.”


“Using the mechanisms we have right now, the appropriate response to that would be to go in, ticket all of those cars that are there, and, if we are really on our toes about enforcing city rules and regulations, the city would proceed to shut down Casa de Luz. So you would have a park that continues to be in rather shoddy condition, you would have an empty surface parking lot, and you would have a shuttered business,” said Riley. “I don’t think that is a favorable outcome for this area.”


Riley explained that the purpose of the ordinance would be to create a mechanism to approve parking in exchange for park improvements under very specific conditions.


Spelman commented: “We are being advised, as usual, to use an ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) to dig a post hole. I wonder why we have to do that, why we have to pass an ordinance in order to make overtures towards a sensible, one-off decision?”


City legal officials confirmed that they had recommended the broader ordinance because they warned that singling out one business and one park could spell legal trouble down the line. They didn’t offer specifics.


The lengthy conversation ultimately ended with Mayor Lee Leffingwell calling the question, and demanding a vote. By that point, several Council members appeared visibly frustrated.


“I think we have to find a way to take these creative solutions and see if they work before we go changing our code and making permanent, sweeping amendments,” said Council Member Mike Martinez. “There’s got to be a way to do this … so that when these situations come up, we don’t sit here for two and a half hours on something that could have been a pilot program that was implemented six months ago.”

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