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Planning Commission denies alcohol sales at Zilker Cafe

Friday, October 29, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

The Planning Commission Tuesday rejected the latest request to sell alcohol at Zilker Cafe amidst concerns about safety and unruly behavior at nearby Barton Springs Pool.

The decision throws into doubt beer and wine sales at the recently renovated concession stand. While the Parks and Recreation Department – the applicant for the conditional use permit – could appeal the decision to City Council, PARD is currently “reviewing its options,” a spokesperson said.

Previous requests for alcohol sales also faced opposition. The citizen-led parks board, after multiple discussions, recommended in September that the Planning Commission reject the proposal

Barton Springs staff and other citizens stayed at City Hall until nearly midnight Tuesday to speak before the commission.

“We’re here to beg you, do not introduce more alcohol in the Barton Springs area,” said longtime lifeguard Scott Cobb, who warned that alcohol sales would put people’s lives in danger. Multiple medical and safety experts wrote in opposition, noting that alcohol is involved in many drowning deaths.

Pool staff said dealing with drunk people is challenging and distracts from keeping others safe. “If you want to support city employees, please don’t allow more alcohol,” employee Andria Hill said.

Cashier Adara Hansard said that refusing entry to intoxicated people, who have often waited in a long line, “is a very daunting and difficult task.” Some of them, she said, get verbally abusive.

The only speakers in favor were connected to Spring Fed, the future concessionaire for the revamped cafe. “This is a cafe,” said Rick Garrett, a partner in Spring Fed. “This is not a bar.” Even with the permit, the cafe would not be able to serve liquor.

Shawn Cirkiel, another business partner, said if he had known that the sale of alcohol would be denied, he probably would not have signed a lease with the city. In a departure from the previous vendor’s hot dogs and snow cone fare, Spring Fed plans to provide healthy, farm-to-table options and offer employees good wages and benefits. But without alcohol sales, Cirkiel said some of these things might have to be sacrificed.

Though commissioners were sympathetic to the restaurateurs’ predicament, they ultimately sided with the staffers and concerned citizens, voting 8-2-3 to deny the request. 

Though the commission unanimously approved alcohol sales at Waterloo Park recently, the proximity of Zilker Cafe to Barton Springs made this case different. 

“I think in this case, we need to be really careful and really think about the safety concerns we’ve heard from staff, lifeguards,” Commissioner Rob Schneider said. 

Chair Todd Shaw argued that the alcohol sales proposal should have been integrated into the Zilker Park Vision Plan, which is currently in the works. “I just think we’ve got it in the wrong order,” Shaw said. Community members can submit feedback on the cafe and anything else they’d like to see in Zilker Park as part of the plan’s community engagement

Commissioners also expressed frustration over their role as arbiters of alcohol sales in parks. “I think we’re really gonna have to improve this process going forward,” Commissioner Awais Azhar said. Azhar and others hope Council will craft a policy outlining when and where alcohol may be sold in parks. 

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