Friday, May 20, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

Facing pressure, flagship Torchy’s drops alcohol waiver request

Anyone who has been to the South Congress Torchy’s Tacos since it opened in January might be surprised to learn that alcohol sales aren’t soon on the way. Since its opening, the restaurant has featured two large bars — one indoor, one outdoor — with several empty taps and margarita machines in plain view.

However, Fulmore Middle School is also in plain view, and that presents a problem for the restaurant. In order to serve alcohol, Torchy’s must obtain a waiver from the city to allow alcohol sales within 300 feet of a school. The restaurant started this process nearly two years ago, under the former City Council, and has recently picked up the cause again under the new City Council, perhaps bolstered by a similar recent waiver down the street.

In the latter case, the waiver will allow beer and wine sales near the Texas School for the Deaf. Though South River City Citizens Neighborhood Association opposed that waiver, the school did not. In Torchy’s case, the neighborhood also opposes the waiver, but it is joined in its opposition by the formidable power of the Austin Independent School District and Austin Interfaith.

In fact, the waiver was addressed the night prior during a gathering of more than 200 people at an Austin Interfaith rally where Council Member Pio Renteria, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and AISD trustees Paul Saldaña and Jayme Mathias all pledged to oppose the variance in person or in writing. Plans were made to gather at City Hall the next day to oppose the variance.

Instead, Austin Interfaith held a press conference following late-breaking word that Torchy’s had opted to withdraw its request rather than ask for a postponement to June.

A statement from Torchy’s explained that it had decided to temporarily withdraw the waiver request in order to continue talks with the community in the hope of reaching a potential compromise. It continued, “We look forward to continuing these current discussions, and will update the community when we refile our waiver. We fully intend to go through the appropriate notification process and we remain committed to being a good neighbor to the South Congress area.”

A representative from Torchy’s told the Austin Monitor that the restaurant had decided to withdraw and refile with full notice rather than leave uncertainty about when the hearing would be held. The resubmitted waiver, the establishment believed, would be the same, though that was currently under discussion.

Saldaña, however, issued a missive that indicated he did not see the withdrawal as all that considerate.

“As the Trustee for District 6, this case has become a distraction for both our students and parents for the past two years,” wrote Saldaña. “Frankly, our community prefers an absolute certainty rather than an ongoing uncertainty. … All of us would prefer to focus on the educational needs and academic success of our kids rather than an impending alcohol waiver.”

At the press conference held at City Hall on Thursday afternoon, Brian Ferguson echoed those concerns.

Ferguson, who is a leader with Austin Interfaith and a minister at the Wildflower Church, said that he suspected the request had been withdrawn because Torchy’s would have lost the vote, and noted that he had no prior indication that it would be withdrawn. He pointed out that the restaurant could now resubmit the permit “at any time” and, potentially, when children were out of school.

“It’s disappointing, really,” Ferguson said. “We were hoping to get this resolved. … Are they going to follow the law or not? The law says you can’t sell alcohol within 300 feet. This has gone on for two years. … We are glad, for the moment, that alcohol is not going to be sold close to the school.”

Ferguson told the Monitor that Austin Interfaith had not yet been approached about any compromises. “We hear those rumors, but no one has said, ‘Here’s what we’d like to do.’ There have been no proposals.”

He added, “It’s not in the city’s charter to reach a compromise. The city charter says, ‘Here’s the law: There shouldn’t be alcohol sold within 300 feet.’”

Tovo told the opponents of the waiver that she shared their frustration that Council did not have an opportunity to vote on the item, and also had some frustration about how there would be no required waiting period before Torchy’s could refile the waiver.

“One of the lessons that I think has come out for me in this situation, having now been through it twice with many of you, twice, is that we need some rules around that so that it doesn’t happen again and again,” said Tovo. “I share your frustration.”

Council Member Leslie Pool also joined some of her colleagues in weighing in on the withdrawn case and said that she “entirely agreed with” Saldaña. As for the margarita machines, she said, “Maybe they can dispense agua frescas.”

Photo by Kimberly Vardeman made available through a Creative Commons license

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

AISD: Austin's largest school district, AISD is the Austin Independent School District.

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Austin Interfaith: Austin Interfaith is a coalition of congregations, schools and unions who work together to address community issues. The group is non-partisan, and focuses on issues that affect families, working people and neighborhoods in the city. AI is part of the Industrial Areas Foundation, which is a national organization.

South River City Citizens Neighborhood Association: SRCC represents the neighborhood in South Austin bounded by Lady Bird Lake on the north, Ben White Blvd. on the south, Congress Avenue to the west, and Parker/ IH35 to the east.

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