Restaurants, parking and neighbors

The subject of Residents Parking Permits has come up multiple times in recent discussions about businesses on South Congress and, especially Polvos on South 1st street. Local residents on small streets have to suffer from the increased traffic, noise and pollution often caused by illegal and unpermitted restaurant expansion, which means essentially the restaurants are profiting while causing problems for their neighbors, often in a 6-block area.

This excellent summary of the issues was recently written by long time Bouldin Creek resident and active member of the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association Cory Walton. It is posted here with his
permission.

The offshoot of the RPP discussion to home sizes and what defines a McMansion is a separate discussion to which I’d like to add for now only a focus on a word that was touched on by several: “Context.” One of the houses named in this discussion, though twice the size of Bouldin’s original 1930s era bungalows, is completely in context with those smaller originals. The Johanna Street “Castles” are not. Somewhere in between is the other home, which, while three stories high (pre-
McMansion) incorporates many elements and scale that is within the context of the original neighborhood.

I bring these points up because they are key considerations in defining Local Historic Districts (LHDs). In the same way that RPP is the only tool residents have to preserve the character and quality of their streets, LHDs is the only tool residents have to preserve and protect the character of the residential structures in our neighborhood. More on this later.

Now, back to the original RPP topic, to expand on the observations and to add an element of context: Most of the businesses on both South Congress and South First were originally built as daytime operations mostly serving the nearby community–hence the small lots and building sizes. When they were built, there were no parking requirements in the city code, but that wasn’t a problem because most were in-and-out retail or service businesses and many of their customers walked there from their homes.

With South Austin’s growing popularity, many of the business locations became restaurant/entertainment venues, expanding the buildings and operating hours, and by the very nature of the business expanding by 6x the length of customer turnover time. Their customer base comes from all over Austin and beyond, and because, as some note, our public transit system sucks, people have to drive there, and most of the businesses have sub-standard parking –which was grandfathered to that location.

So because there’s little space to build additional parking, and no economic incentive to build it anyway, there’s no place for customers to park except on residential streets. Our streets become de-facto commercial parking lots, making it imperative that city code be enforced to ensure no illegal restaurant expansion to exacerbate an already bad situation.

The physical limitations on the neighborhood’s commercial properties and their close proximity to residential properties and streets simply cannot accommodate large (or for that matter, loud) restaurants. If a restaurant wants to grow, it should invest in a second location elsewhere on a commercial property that IS able to legally accommodate the restaurant’s numbers. This is the responsible way for a successful business to grow as countless local examples have demonstrated.

By shirking this responsibility, every time a restaurant expands in the neighborhood–legally or illegally– they are in effect, pouring a few more gallons into an already overflowing bucket, and the neighbors bear the brunt while the business increases its profits.

Realizing and responding to this reality, a couple of years ago our neighbors across South Congress, SRCC neighborhood, proposed an overlay to South Congress Avenue which would limit the number of restaurants to one per block.

This would serve two purposes 1). It would limit the amount of new gallons that could be poured into the overflowing bucket (i.e. overflow parking and traffic on our residential streets until a multi-modal transport light at the end of the tunnel is reached:); but also, 2). because the ordinance defines a limit on the type of businesses on these commercial streets, it would place a limit on commercial property values and prices, so some of our signature small, locally-owned businesses might be able to stay around and operate profitably for a few more years.

Since the proposed overlay was decried by the business community and never got any sponsorship from our city council, and because city code enforcement is complaint-driven, which means the damage has usually already been done by the time residents complain, and forcing a business to remove an illegal structure has never been accomplished in the entire history of Austin, RPP seems like the only tool residents have at their disposal to retain the residential quality of their streets and perhaps encourage businesses to act more respectfully and responsibly.

5 Comments so far

  1. tthomas48 on September 16th, 2008 @ 12:59 pm

    1) You guys voted against Light Rail. This would have eased the parking burden.
    2) CapMetro recently got rid of the Orange Dillo that went all the way down South Congress alleviating parking burden at least during lunch. You guys protested that? No?
    3) Your residential neighborhoods are not residential neighborhoods anymore. You cannot preserve the character of them, because you are now downtown. You are an Urban neighborhood.
    4) You are not using the McMansion ordinance for anything other than to pick and choose what kind of architecture you like.

    Finally, sure get the residential parking permits. It’s not going to solve your problem, and it is not going to keep people from parking illegally.
    The solution is to advocate for more public transportation in the area. To make congress more pedestrian friendly and to advocate for more dense development in the area so that more people live by the restaurants.


  2. m1ek on September 19th, 2008 @ 2:01 pm

    I could not agree more with Tim, or with Austin Contrarian’s take. Grow up. It’s a city. It’s free traffic calming.


  3. alexkw on September 19th, 2008 @ 4:30 pm

    My fiancee are building a home in that neighborhood. The reason we chose to live in an urban center is that we want to be able to walk places. Asking me to get in my car so that I can dine or shop is absurd. We need more local restaurants and shops, not fewer.

    I agree with tthomas48. Parking permits will not resolve the parking problem. Use the Wicker Park neighborhood in Chicago as an example. That area has seen a renaissance in the last decade. Nail shops, and payday loan stores are now locally owned boutiques and amazing restaurants. Those local residents who require cars park in their garages and/or use parking passes. But more often than not they walk to get dinner or groceries. This alone makes Wicker Park a very desirable area.

    And guess what. Even with parking passes, parking is a still bitch in that area. In my opinion this raises the bar for local establishments. Folks who live outside the neighborhood have to deal with a hassle in order to dine or shop in that area. That means that only the best local businesses survive. After all, if I’m going to the trouble of parking, you can bet I’m going to eat or shop somewhere unique to that area.

    So, I say let’s do the parking passes. Or not. Either way it isn’t going to matter. One thing’s for certain, though. Parking is only going to get more difficult. And places like Polvo’s may find that their food isn’t good enough to warrant such an exclusive location. And I would welcome that change.


  4. triman on September 20th, 2008 @ 8:17 am

    Thanks for the comments. First @tthomas48 You’d be surprised how much we agree. First, I never voted against the light rail, I wasn’t here at the time. In the original newsgroup discussion that I took Corys post from, there was specific discussion about light rail, this is referred to in the penultimate paragraph of the main blog post.

    I completely agree with the sentiment that we are an urban neighborhood, personally the last thing I want to see is parking banned from my street, it would be like living out in the ‘burbs. I am one of those people that the Austin Contrarian says will occupy the neighborhood, I came here via London and New York.

    I didn’t specify in the post where the RPP was being considered for, it actually isn’t for SoCo as it currently stands, they already have a raft of parking restrictions.

    What you’ve all overlooked in this case, is that the city isn’t enforcing already breached planning, zoning and development rules. One or two restaurant owners continue to develop and extend their properties, and are being less than honest as they do it.

    It was in this light that the discussion started, and Corys points should be taken and are well made. Polvos is a fine example. Almost their entire outdoor patio was built on the outside of the existing outdoor seating. There was no planning, zoning or permitting for it. It caused the loss of existing parking spaces, forcing more cars in the interior of the neighborhood. The city have been reluctant to enforce.

    Polvos have indirectly through a 3rd parties, acquired the house next door in W Johanna, and the property behind. They proceeded to lay concrete beyond the impervious cover limits for the neighborhood, and parallel to the existing unpermitted patio seating. They clearly hoped to extend the seating into the backyard of a residential house and even started removing the fencing between the west side of the pation and the residential yard.. The also built a corridor from the kitchen area of the restaurant, across the rear yard of a residential yard, to the property at the back. The city issued a stop work order, but they continued finished, roofed and painted the corridor.

    It’s clear what they planned to do was to move food storage or prep to the property at the back, and either use the existing space for more internal seating or to allow them to prep more food, more quickly. To date, only two permits were received for this work, one to add a cover to the existing unpermitted seating which has been refused as they don’t have enough parking spaces; the second permit was to use the space at the rear of the residential property and the property behind for parking, which on a plan may look like whats happening, but seen from the properties, clearly isn’t. They continue to use the existing unpermitted patio space without penalty.

    As it currently stands, properties on S 2nd St are regularly completely blocked in. The street has no footpath on either side, it is narrow, and yes, that makes for traffic calming, especially when there is a stand-off and no progress can be made in either direction because one driver refuses to "give way" to oncoming traffic. In this environment, the residents can complain to the city, but when those complaints are ignored, they have no other course of action except to consider RPP. The RPD that the contrarian proposes, just wouldn’t do it, unless one side of the street is marked no parking. When there is parking on both sides, emergency vehicle access for fire and and ambulance isn’t always possible.

    Doing RPP for that one street would just move the problem. So currently the residents of 6-blocks around the restaurant are working to achieve the signatures needed. Polvos may be a great restaurant, it is clearly popular. However it shouldn’t be allowed to continue to profit from the ADDITIONAL misery it imposes on its’ neighbors. If the city won’t take this seriously, then the residents do have at least one course of action.

    Again, Corys points are right on the money, if the business has a magical formula for making money, they should take it elsewhere rather than continue to expand beyond what is reasonable for their existing space, the THREAT of RPP might help them see that. Don’t forget, the RPP process allows for it to be removed also as easily as it in installed.

    As for Cap Metro and the Dillo’s. Yes, in my time in the neighborhood we certainly actively lobbied Cap Metro to change the Dillo, to have it turn Congress and S 1st into a bidirectional loop routed. South on S 1st, over Oltorf, north on Congress; and the South on Congress and north on S1st. Never happened.

    We also agree on making Congress and S 1st more pedestrian friendly. The Neighborhood association is currently lobbying for a crossing at S 1St and Elizabeth(See Statesman Watch), and I personally have taken an active intrest in the shambles that has been caused on the north end of the S 1st Bridge, there is also ongoing discussion about the crossing islands on Congress.

    Thanks again for the contributions, ideas and links. Keep them coming!
    @m1ek suggestion that we should "grow-up" is though exactly what makes these discussions emotional and causes people to react badly and to start slinging insults around. It was out of context accusations like that, that drew the discussion of house styles in the first paragraph of Corys positioning.


  5. m1ek on September 20th, 2008 @ 5:35 pm

    I’m going to stick with "grow up", thanks. For example, there’s really no reason you should be under the impression that residents of your neighborhood have a greater moral claim on parking on your street than does anybody else in the entire city – no matter how few parking spaces the restaurant they may be patronizing might have.

    It doesn’t really matter that some of those expansions were ‘illegal’ thanks to our bogus suburban zoning code, except for the one case where they expanded right over the city’s sidewalk ROW (nail THOSE guys right to the wall, please). Unless you prefer the paradise of Guadalupe in my neighborhood – where everybody has plenty of parking and there’s nothing worth going to.



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