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Casa de Luz parking troubles back at City Hall

Wednesday, October 21, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

It’s been a while since Casa de Luz was at City Hall, but the business and its parking woes were back, albeit briefly, at last week’s Board of Adjustment meeting.

This time, founder Eduardo Longoria was at the Board of Adjustment seeking a parking variance to reduce the number of required spaces from 46 to zero. Board members voted unanimously to deny the variance, 8-0, with Board Member Eric Goff and Michael Von Ohlen absent.

Stuart Harry Hersh represented Casa de Luz in front of the board. He explained that the business, which includes a restaurant and event space, remains in the same Catch-22 as before – it cannot get a building permit for required sprinkler systems unless it gets a parking variance, nor can it get another permit for work performed 10 years ago on the front, educational building.

The request, said Hersh, “seems reasonable” given the fact that the neighboring Zachary Scott Theatre has 41 on-site parking spaces for its 1,189-seat venue. Casa de Luz has an occupancy of 85 people, and Hersh said that it has four spaces on site, of which two are designated for loading and one is designated for people with disabilities. He also explained that properties once available for off-site parking agreements had been developed.

“There have been no parking problems on Toomey Road except when there are major events in Zilker Park, such as Austin City Limits … and the Trail of Lights,” said Hersh.

Board members unequivocally disagreed.

Board Member Melissa Hawthorne explained her position, noting that Casa de Luz had “20-some years, if not more” to find parking through the purchase of land or an agreement with a neighboring business, after it was granted a variance for off-site parking.

“I think that Casa de Luz is a wonderful place, but I also think that parking is something that should be provided,” said Hawthorne. “I don’t think to take parking from park users is appropriate. So I will not be your biggest fan on this case.”

Noting Casa de Luz’s history of code violations, several other board members followed Hawthorne’s lead. Chair Vincent Harding and Board Member Brooke Bailey both said that they could not support the variance either.

“I think at some point, enough is enough,” said Bailey.

Hersh worked to explain why this variance request differed from the decades of parking problems and code violations that have characterized Casa de Luz’s relationship with the city.

Hersh explained that, for decades, the ballfields and theater nearby shared free parking. That parking is now metered, and Hersh said that there are more than 130 metered spaces directly across the street, which was not the case when the Board of Adjustment approved a now-expired parking variance for Casa de Luz more than a decade ago.

Hersh suggested that Casa de Luz customers could use those metered lots. “Casa de Luz is only asking to continue to be part of an initiative that generated more than $250,000 in parking district revenue in the first year and nearly $70,000 in ballfield parking revenue in the first year,” Hersh said.

“Those of us who dine at Casa de Luz pay for our parking every day from 8 a.m. until midnight, every day but Sunday,” said Hersh. “Our approach meant that we would pay for parking, while recognizing that our neighbors at the ballfields and theaters could continue to park for free for their respective events.”

Hersh told the board that Certificates of Occupancy were issued in 1997 for both the educational building and the restaurant. He said that he had nine boxes of materials from the Code Department, obtained through an open records request, and there was no evidence that those certificates had been revoked.

Zilker Neighborhood Association’s Lorraine Atherton spoke against the variance. She brought forward a letter from former Board of Adjustment Chair Jeff Jack that summarized ZNA’s 20-year history of opposition to the variance.

“The main problem is that the variance does not meet any of the fundamental requirements for such a variance. It sets an extremely bad precedent for the entire city and encourages bad behavior for those wishing to avoid complying with our zoning requirements,” said Atherton.

Atherton suggested that Casa de Luz could solve its parking problems by removing the restaurant use from the property. She also maintained that the parking variance “granted special privilege” to the establishment.

This story has been corrected to reflect the fact that Board Member Eric Goff was not absent. He has yet to take his oath of office.

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