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Parks board rejects alcohol sales at Zilker Cafe, but the vote is in question

Thursday, June 24, 2021 by Amy Smith

A key vote by the Parks and Recreation Board may need to be recast due to a shortage of board members required to consider a proposal to sell beer and wine at the newly renovated Zilker Cafe adjacent to Barton Springs Pool.

Parks and Recreation Department officials were apparently unaware that more than six members were needed to decide the question of whether to recommend a conditional use permit for the cafe. Under city code, the sale of beer or wine in a public space requires a zoning change as well as a recommendation from the parks board before the matter can be considered by the Planning Commission.

After an hour of public testimony and a round of robust deliberation, the board voted 4-2 on Tuesday against recommending the permit application for the cafe. Constructed in 1950 and 1960, the modified building is a contributing structure to the Zilker National Register Historic District. The cafe closed in 2016 to allow for repairs and renovation while preserving most of the historic outer shell. The cafe is scheduled to open this year, with or without the sale of alcohol.

On Wednesday, it was unclear what the parks department would do next, considering that two board members who were absent from Tuesday’s meeting – Sarah Faust and Kim Taylor – would round out the six votes in opposition, assuming all members are present if the case returns to the board. Faust and Taylor each sent an email stating their opposition, which Chair Dawn Lewis read into the record.

Parks Director Kimberly McNeeley said Wednesday that the department is reviewing the code and considering options for next steps. Department staff members had worked hard to deliver on a proposal that was launched under former Parks Director Sara Hensley, and the vendor is eager to get started.

The Zilker Cafe case comes at a time when the department is overwhelmed by several challenges heading into a busy summer on the heels of the Covid pandemic. There is the annual scramble to hire lifeguards and open city pools, coupled with the ongoing pressure to comply with separate mandates from voters and the state to move people experiencing homelessness out of parks and other public places.

Add the prospect of alcohol to the mix and things can go haywire. In this case, it was the proposal to sell wine and beer in such close proximity to Barton Springs Pool – which many people consider sacred ground – that prompted environmental groups and regular patrons of the pool to mobilize forces to oppose the application. The Austin Sierra Club, Save Our Springs Alliance and Save Barton Creek Association all organized email opposition campaigns.

Scott Cobb, a Barton Springs lifeguard, told the board that the lifeguards were not consulted about the the proposal to sell alcohol so close to the pool. “A lot of us were surprised to hear about this proposal because one of our main duties is to enforce the rules against having alcohol at the pool,” he said.

Like other speakers, Cobb pointed out that it’s not uncommon for people to sneak alcohol into the pool area. “People who have been drinking pose a safety risk to themselves, the patrons and the lifeguards. Some of that alcohol is going to end up inside the gates of the pool because it will be inside people’s bellies when they enter.”

On the other side, public testimony in support of the proposal outnumbered those speaking against, 19 to 11. Supporters argued that opponents were incorrectly tying the cafe to the pool, stating that they would like to enjoy a beer or glass of wine while their children play in the park.

SpringFed, the local hospitality group that was awarded the City Council-approved contract in 2019, is led by Rick Garrett and popular Austin chef and restaurateur Shawn Cirkiel. The pair presented two different messages to the board. Cirkiel touched on the enhanced menu selections that include healthy vegetarian and vegan food options, all locally sourced, with compostable service ware.

Garrett told the board, “Many of the comments (opposed to alcohol) are based on fear.” He said he and Cirkiel run or are in partnerships with 16 food and beverage sites throughout the city, including at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, where they hold a city contract to operate eating establishments in the new terminal. “We made this concept and we created this concept specifically for Barton Springs Pool,” he said, adding that he and Cirkiel have a proven record of selling beer and wine responsibly.

Board members Nina Rinaldi and Rich DePalma cast the dissenting votes, arguing the additional amenity of wine and beer sales at Zilker would add value for park visitors. They pointed to the laid-back atmosphere at Alta’s Cafe located on city-owned property along Lady Bird Lake. The cafe is part of the watercraft operations run by the Austin Rowing Club.

Board members voting against the proposal included Laura Cottam Sajbel, who made the motion against the permit application after calling the department proposal “a really ill-conceived idea.” She said the city would be putting itself at serious risk for liability if alcohol is served just 90 feet from the pool space. Joining her in the motion were Chair Lewis, Anna Di Carlo and Nancy Barnard.

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