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Monday, August 30, 2021 by Kali Bramble
Parks board to reconsider Zilker alcohol sales
The Parks and Recreation Board revisited its decision regarding the controversial permit to sell alcohol at Zilker Cafe this past Tuesday, following concerns over the legitimacy of its original vote on the issue back in June.
After a convoluted discussion between board members, PARD Director Kimberly McNeeley and Assistant City Attorney Chad Shaw, Chair Dawn Lewis ultimately made a motion to reopen the item for a vote in September, which passed unanimously.
Amid these setbacks, public concern over the sale of alcohol in close proximity to Barton Springs Pool and Zilker Park continues to loom large over the department. Community members’ statements at the beginning of the meeting were dominated by a theme of vehement opposition to the permit, with some speakers opting to return in September when the board will have a second chance to vote.
Scott Cobb, who is a lifeguard at Barton Springs, echoed the board’s frustrations in saying that he found it “rather disturbing that the issue (of Zilker Cafe) was not considered upon the outcome of that (June) vote.” He criticized the legal department for intervening, stating that “the people of Austin are represented by the Parks and Recreation Board” and that “we need to respect the democratic process.”
Other callers raised concerns including the risks of swimming while intoxicated, the burden placed upon lifeguards called upon to deal with an increase in reckless behavior, and the potential deterioration of Zilker’s family-friendly atmosphere. Austinite Jennifer Rebanal was skeptical about the idea of “turning public park green and water spaces into for-profit entertainment experiences,” noting that there are “multiple opportunities within walking distance … where drinking is permitted.”
Board members originally addressed the proposed conditional use permit for the sale of wine and alcohol back in June, rejecting the appeal in a vote of 2-4, with Nina Rinaldi and Rich DePalma voting in favor. However, due to the absence of Board members Sarah Faust and Kim Taylor and three vacant seats, the four votes against did not meet the threshold for a recommendation.
Between the issue’s public controversy and confusion within the board, the discussion Tuesday became quickly charged. Lewis introduced the item as an “exercise in frustration,” saying that the board had not received a proper explanation as to why the June vote was no longer considered acceptable.
Shaw’s presence was not much help, with DePalma quickly becoming agitated at the assistant city attorney’s inability to convey how, exactly, the board had violated the Texas Open Meetings Act, given that the vote met its requirement of a quorum of six members.
Ultimately, Board Member Sarah Faust clarified the reasoning behind the debacle. She explained that the conditional use permit could not move forward to the Planning Commission without an explicit recommendation from the Parks and Recreation Board, and that an “effective action” requires six affirmative votes, according to the commission’s bylaws. Faust suggested that preventing future criticism of the June decision on these grounds warranted the cautious (albeit tedious) move to redo the vote.
Dispute over the use permit surfaced again during a briefing on the Zilker Metropolitan Park Vision Plan Project. After hearing a summary of the project’s efforts in community engagement, Faust criticized the “bifurcation” of the two issues – the vision plan and the conditional use permit – given that the decision about Zilker Cafe would impact the future operation of the park. She lamented the missed opportunity of using the “robust community input procedures” at the program’s meetings to discuss an issue so critical to the program’s goals.
While McNeeley said Faust’s comments would be “taken into consideration” by the project’s staff, it is unclear whether the vision plan will include the controversial issue under its purview.
The parks board is scheduled to reconvene on Sept. 28, when it will vote on the issue for the second and likely final time.
This story has been corrected to reflect the fact that Kim Taylor, not Anna Di Carlo, was absent for the original vote.
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Key Players & Topics In This Article
Parks and Recreation Board: The city’s Parks and Recreation Board members deal with the acquisition, development, improvement, and maintenance of Austin’s parks and playgrounds.
Zilker Park: Austin's largest downtown park, Zilker Park is comprised of 350 acres donated by Andrew Jackson Zilker in 1917. It contains the Zilker Botanical Gardens, Umlauf Sculpture Garden and adjoins Barton Springs Pool.