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Casa de Luz heads to court

Tuesday, November 24, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

It’s time to add another stanza to the Casa de Luz epic. The parking issues are now moving to district court after a variance request and appeal were denied by the Board of Adjustment.

The Board of Adjustment is a quasi-judicial board, and its decisions cannot be appealed to City Council. So the Shambala Corp., which owns 1701 Toomey Road, where Casa de Luz is located, is taking the city and the Board of Adjustment to district court to do just that.

Stuart Hersh spoke to the Austin Monitor on behalf of Casa de Luz and gave a brief statement on the suit.

“We hoped for a fair hearing in September, and we didn’t get one. We hoped for a fair hearing in October, and we didn’t get one. We hoped for a fair hearing in November, and we didn’t get one,” said Hersh. “So our understanding was our only appeal was to district court.”

In October, the Board of Adjustment denied a parking variance for the business. In November, it decided not to reconsider the case.

The business is arguing that, because the testimony against the variance was in the form of a letter from former Board of Adjustment Chair Jeff Jack, which was read out loud by someone else, it was not admissible. (This same argument was used but rejected at the Board of Adjustment appeal.) The petition adds that Jack’s letter was “obviously intended to have a political effect” and that the “anecdotal” comments from the board members themselves “should not have been the basis of the decision either.”

The petition continues, “The Board of Adjustment’s decision was illegal and constituted an abuse of discretion because the Board of Adjustment acted arbitrarily, unreasonably and without reference to guiding principles.”

The suit also explains some of the history of the business, noting that when the use of the property changed from a meat-packing plant to its current use as a community center in 1991, it almost immediately ran into trouble. It elaborates, “(The) seemingly desirable uses of this inner-City land are consistent with the goals and objectives of the City’s land use planning efforts. However, the City’s strict on-site parking requirements for these uses are greater than they were for the meat packing plant and there is inadequate room on the Property to accommodate the strict requirements of the City.”

Since then, Casa de Luz’s parking woes and the resulting complications have been in and out of City Hall (and court), and numerous options to fix the problem have been proposed but never quite realized. In 2004, the Board of Adjustment did grant a variance to the business. That variance allowed Casa de Luz to use off-site parking to fulfill the city’s requirements.

“Since then,” the petition explains, “the enormous explosion of development in this central south Austin area has resulted in the elimination of sites which were previously available for off-site parking leases within reasonable distances from the Property. Those opportunities are therefore no longer available.”

Almost a decade later, Council attempted to address the parking problem through a proposal to use city parking spaces for public parking. According to the petition, “This innovative idea not only made parking available to central City areas with difficult on-site parking issues, but also created the opportunity for the realization of significant City revenue to benefit parkland and other City property. A prime example of this was the City’s designation of the parking areas for the City softball fields directly across Toomey Rd. from Plaintiffs Property as a ‘parking district’ with more than 130 parking spaces available for a fee. Every user of these parking spaces now pays the City for the use of parking spaces, including the users of the Property.”

The petition notes that usage of the meters has been, thus far, a success and that more than $250,000 in city revenue was collected in the first year with “no parking or traffic related problems” associated with Casa de Luz. However, the meters do not officially address the business’ parking issues, and though there have been several attempts to do just that, none have yet been successful.

In October 2013, Council approved a resolution that initiated code amendments to allow businesses to use metered parking to meet city requirements. And, more than a year ago, Council contemplated the ordinance that would do just that, ultimately passing that ordinance on first reading during its final December meeting.

However, on Feb. 26, the current Council voted to send that ordinance to the Mobility Committee, where – nine months later – it still has not been discussed. Though it appeared on the committee’s August agenda, it was never addressed and has remained in limbo as the committee has tackled other issues (primarily transportation network companies).

Council did approve the installation of parking meters at the Butler Shores ballfields in a move that was initially tied to Casa de Luz. However, though the meters have been installed, they have not impacted the parking conundrum at Casa de Luz. A second resolution passed at that same meeting that more directly addressed the situation has not moved forward.

All of which leaves Casa de Luz in the same familiar position where it has rested for years. The Austin Fire Department is requiring that sprinklers be installed, which the business is willing to do, but according to the petition, city staff has said that parking first must be brought up to code with on-site parking or a parking variance. The alternative, according to the filed petition, would require Casa de Luz to remove “much of the lush and desirable landscaping on the Property … to provide for concrete driveways for fire truck access.”

The city declined to comment on the suit because, according to a spokesperson, it has not yet been served.

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