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Commission nixes brew pub tasting room

Monday, August 18, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

A plan to open a tasting room in conjunction with a new East Austin brewery failed to win over the Planning Commission last week.

Owners of the Blue Owl Brew Pub had hoped to reach a compromise with the neighborhood that would allow them to open a tasting room along with their brewery, but that compromise appears to be a ways off.

“I’m glad that the applicant is still willing to work with the neighborhood, but when you look at the zoning map, there isn’t a single CS-1 zoning district anywhere,” said Commissioner James Nortey. “This isn’t consistent with the adjacent zoning districts, it’s out of sync with the neighborhood history — both the history, the past and the future — and it seems that we are trying to squeeze a square through a circle … It doesn’t sit well with me.”

In April, City Council approved a new ordinance that allows beer sales and consumption at breweries. However, those regulations apply only to certain zoning categories, not General Commercial Services (CS), which is the current zoning at 2400 East Cesar Chavez.

The Blue Owl would need a more intense zoning, CS-1 — which is categorically opposed in the neighborhood plan — in order for its owners to take advantage of the new brewery rules and open a tasting room.

Planning and Development Review’s Jerry Rusthoven explained that the conditions attached to the zoning would limit the hours and size of the tasting room. But neighborhood representatives remained unconvinced, and showed up to speak out against the change.

In the end, the Planning Commission voted to postpone the case indefinitely in a vote of 6-1-1, with Nortey voting in opposition and Commissioner Stephen Oliver abstaining. Commissioner Brian Roark was absent.

The indefinite postponement means the brewery can open, but not the tasting room, allowing for a “trial year” proposed by the neighborhood.

Gavino Fernandez of El Concilio spoke against the zoning change and gave the history of the neighborhood, which has had problematic relationships with local bars. Several neighbors expressed fears that Cesar Chavez could become “another Rainey Street” if left unchecked.

CS-1 zoning allows cocktail lounges, and the neighborhood has worked to down-zone existing CS-1 over the years, changing bars to offices when bars go out of business.

“This particular location is right smack in the middle of the heart of the neighborhood,” said Fernandez. “We did suggest a one-year window operating under CS, that way the neighborhood could see the type of clientele, the type of business and the type of atmosphere that this is going to bring. Because 10 or 15 years ago, it never dawned on us working on the neighborhood plan that a brewery would want to come to East Austin.”

Blue Owl co-owner Jeff Young said the owners had met with neighborhood representatives several times, had worked with the city to come up with restrictions on the zoning, and were still open to more compromise. He said the neighborhood’s concerns were valid and reasonable.

“At the end of the day, we are all going to be neighbors anyway, so we want this to be a productive, solution-oriented outcome for both us and the neighborhood,” said Young. “I’m just a brewer. I’m coming in just trying to have a small tap room so that I can sell my beers on site. They are seeing it as — and rightly so — these larger issues that are coming up. It may be a case where we are caught in a little bit of the crossfire with everything that is going on in Austin in general.”

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