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Vote endorses cocktail lounges as conditional use in Rainey Street District

Thursday, January 24, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

Despite stated concerns that the city was closing a barn long-emptied of horses, the Planning Commission this week gave a recommendation for a code amendment that would make cocktail lounges a conditional use in the Rainey Street district.


Through a series of evolving horse-barn metaphors, the commission reversed an opinion by the Codes and Ordinances subcommittee, which unanimously voted to not recommend the change. The commission voted 7-1 in favor of the code amendment, with Commissioners James Nortey voting in opposition and Jean Stevens absent.


When the Rainey Street District was included in the Central Business District in 2005, the zoning had an unexpected side effect. Because cocktail lounges are not a conditional use under CBD zoning, many of the houses that were upzoned were quickly transformed into bars. Currently, in addition to the overwhelming number of bars currently on the street, there are more on the way, with 12 new applications for bars recently approved by the city.


The city began working on this code amendment just about a year ago. Considering the small size of the district, making cocktail lounges a conditional use at this stage in the game struck some as a moot point.


“There are, like, three lots left,” said Commissioner Danette Chimenti. “The horse being out of the barn is kind of putting it mildly.” Chimenti went on to explain that a developer of a high-rise planned for the area told the Codes and Ordinances subcommittee that they didn’t want to be penalized.


But commissioners were swayed by several people who live in the area speaking in favor of the amendment.


“We’re living very closely with these bars right now. There are 900 homes through the condominiums as well as the homes remaining on Rainey Street… We don’t think it’s too late,” said Rainey Street district resident Anita White. “Rainey is not the only street in this area.”


“If you feel like you’ve left the horse out of the barn, we want some help in at least keeping it in the corral,” said White.


Angela Hovis, who is a former Rainey Neighbors Association president, also spoke in favor of the amendment.


“We don’t think it’s over with,” said Hovis, “We think the city of Austin actually made a big mistake when they didn’t make all of downtown conditional use… I think Austin missed a big opportunity on having control over making downtown livable.”


“We will continue to see a transformation of Rainey Street with other things besides bars,” said Commissioner Stephen Oliver. “We are at one phase of an evolution and we don’t know what’s going to come next.”


Though staff supports the amendment as a way to manage development in the area, Planning and Development Review’s Greg Dutton said, “Given the realities of the area, this is a code amendment that may not be that effective.”


If City Council approves the amendment, cocktail lounges in the Rainey Street area will need approval from the Planning Commission. A property that is currently operating as a bar would not lose that privilege unless it ceased that use for at least 90 days, if it is approved by Council.

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