Photo by city of Austin
Thursday, September 30, 2021 by Amy Smith

Parks board again rejects proposal to sell alcohol at Zilker Cafe

The issue of alcohol sales at Zilker Cafe made its third and final appearance before the Parks and Recreation Board on Tuesday, with board members delivering a decisive 8-1 vote against recommending the proposal, given the cafe’s proximity – about 30 steps – to the entrance to Barton Springs Pool.

The sale of beer and wine at a city park requires a conditional use permit, which must first receive a recommendation from the parks board prior to consideration by the Planning Commission. And under the Law Department’s interpretation of city code, a recommendation from the parks board, a non-sovereign entity, doesn’t necessarily have to be favorable.

In the motion made by Board Member Sarah Faust, the board recommended that the Planning Commission deny the conditional use permit.

For some board members, the testimony from pool employees offered the most compelling reason to vote against recommending the proposal, even swaying Board Member Rich DePalma to change his vote and join the majority. Board Member Nina Rinaldi acknowledged the pool staffers’ concerns, but stood by her original argument that the sale of beer and wine at the cafe would enhance the experience of park users.

At the board’s June meeting, the 4-2 vote against recommending the conditional use permit was rendered moot because at least six votes were required to move the item to the Planning Commission. In August, the board voted to reconsider the proposal at its September meeting.

PARD anticipates the Planning Commission’s consideration of the zoning exception on either Oct. 12 or Oct. 26.

As with past meetings, Barton Springs Pool patrons and at least three pool staffers overwhelmingly expressed their opposition to alcohol sales at the cafe. However, several speakers also said they believed the City Council-approved vendor, SpringFed, would responsibly sell beer and wine. They also commended the vendor for its plan to offer healthy food options and fresh juices and smoothies. What they didn’t understand was why alcohol had to be included in the menu fare.

Adara Hansard, a cashier at the pool, told the board that the most combative patrons are those who want to bring alcoholic drinks into the pool. “People wait 30 minutes, sometimes even up to an hour on busy summer days. They’re hot, they want to go swimming, and they may just have alcohol in their hands,” she said. “They may not be from Austin, or they may be from Austin, but not everyone is aware of our alcohol policy.”

As a cashier, she is tasked with refusing the would-be swimmers’ entry into the pool, regardless of whether they have already paid. “We have a no-refund policy, and explaining to people who have waited that long in that kind of heat is difficult. People can get quite upset. I’ve had many incidents where people have yelled at me, threatened me, become aggressive with me,” Hansard said, adding that one individual became so upset he refused to leave. “It took my manager threatening to call the police for him to actually leave the facility,” she said.

For Hansard, the idea of selling alcohol so close to the pool felt “daunting” since it is her job to enforce the rules.

Lifeguard Scott Cobb, making another appearance before the board, said that dealing with alcohol violations is already a distraction from staff members’ other duties. He worries that there will be more people who don’t recognize the risks associated with drinking and swimming at Barton Springs, given its natural, wild state.

Dennis Moreno testified that in his four years of working at the pool, he has had to personally deal with many patrons upset about the city’s no-alcohol policy. “I’ve seen a lot of harassment,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of abuse toward cashiers and lifeguards regarding the alcohol policy. Adding another part to that battle would seem kind of pointless and a little frustrating for the people who work there.”

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Barton Springs Pool: This man-made, spring-fed recreational pool is rightly considered the spiritual center of Austin. Despite its intimidatingly cool waters, it remains a popular year-round swimming spot for Austinites of all ages.

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.

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