Picture Some rights reserved by gak on flickr.com
Except, and perhaps even in the sweltering 100f+ days in Austin, eating outdoors can be a really pleasant experience and a real money maker for restaurants. You only need to go out and see what has happened at the Oasis over the last 3-years to see how true that is. Admittedly the Oasis has a unique position but the number of restaurants offering outdoor seating is exploding, that comes at a price, or should and not just for the customers and the city,
Vivo’s on Manor Rd is apparently, according to their Facebook campaign to write-in to Councillors and the mayor, in court today for non-compliance with the City’s restaurant parking requirements. Vivo’s campaign is the first I’m aware of that is actively using social media to “lobby”, a.k.a bully, coerce, or shame Councillors and the mayor into doing something so that the restaurant can “stay in East Austin”. According to Vivo’s, if the city forces them to close their outdoor patios because they don’t have the appropriate number of parking spaces, they’ll close. Since the case was already on the court docket, I’m at a loss to see what the point of writing to elected officials is at this point though, apart from to create and unfair, biased view of the process. It’s not clear why else they’d be asking people to email now.
It’s a common tale, a restaurant buys a lot, as part of their opening they have to get an approved site plan from the city which makes sure that they are in compliance with the rules. Everything from electrical, drainage, access, parking are checked. It’s one way the city makes it fair for businesses, they all get to adhere to the same set of rules; it’s also how the city attempts to make restaurants safe for the customers, both from a hygiene, access and fire perspective. At least in the urban parts of the city, regulations are also there to try to limit the impact on direct neighbors.
Yet all the time, we hear the of the “battles” between the restaurants and the city over parking. The neighborhoods and residents hit back with the only tool they have, first complaining to 311, then eventually given no respite, Residential Parking Permits[RPP]. But mostly, it isn’t about the parking, except in one or two specific cases.
What often happens is this, after the restaurant opens, and we’ve all been there, in it’s first few months it is the “hot” place to go. This either persists or not. When it persists, the owner looks for ways to capitalize on the success, since building a bigger building or extension to the existing building would both incur cost and impact their compliance, they start by putting a few extra seats outside. Wahoo’s on South Congress is a prime example of this. Personally their additional seating out on the sidewalk has made the place look a mess, if they continue to get away with it, in compliance or not, other restaurants will want to follow and over time the wide sidewalk that has made SoCo a fun place to “parade” will become littered with obstacles and difficult for pedestrians to pass.
By Vivo’s own admission, they were told by the city they couldn’t use part of their land for parking, hey so why not use it for extra seating then? Causing a non-compliance problem to get worse. The same scene is also playing out at Polvos on South 1st right now, they have half their outdoor seating not in use while they try to get special treatment from the city for the unpermitted, unzoned changes they’ve already made. Back in the 2002 Bouldin Creek Neighborhood plan the junction of S 1st and W Johanna was called out as a problem, but apparently according to the restaurants attorney at a meeting at City Hall last week, they were in non-compliance with the outdoor seating when they bought the restaurant years before that.
Lets be clear, there are a set of rules, the City Councillors approve the rules, created by City staff, with a LOT of input/lobbying from the commercial sector and variable input from the citizens; when city staff, usually years after the fact, become aware that a business is potentially breaking the rules, usually because of citizens complaint(s) they investigate; the City gives the business ample opportunity to come into compliance(often years) and when they don’t, staff reluctantly take zoning, fire and safety violations to municipal court.
What often then happens is the businesses get fined such small amounts that it doesn’t cover the cost of the citys code compliance and legal work. Austin and by association its tax payers, depend of businesses to keep in compliance voluntarily, when they don’t it’s often because the business has decided it can make more money by not being in compliance, which in the end hurts everyone, not just the restaurant.
Contrary to the popular portrayal of the City code enforcement, there are not legions of inspectors combing neighborhoods and visiting business looking for the slightest problem. Most businesses who operate within reasonable limits and don’t unduly impact their commercial and residential neighbors are unlikely to ever see code compliance inspector. It’s only when they expand beyond that, AND someone or organization complains, that code compliance will be sent out.
The city doesn’t single out a restaurant, they don’t change the rules(well rarely), the restaurant is often just taking commercial advantage of Austins voluntary compliance and slack enforcement to do business on the cheap, expanding a lot beyond what is reasonable, and legal, and impacting neighbors. When the city does get involved it is costing each and everyone of us money that could get better used elsewhere.
Just because a restaurant you visit has outdoor seating doesn’t mean it is legal and permitted; just because you can park on city[public] streets to go to the restaurant, doesn’t make it OK. As few as 20 extra seats can bring-in $250,000 per year on a modest tab per diner, that shouldn’t allow the restaurant to become a burden on neighbors, and the tax payer and give them the right to complain about rules that were in existence, when they opened up.
[Update: According to Vivo’s facebook campaign page, they’ve been given 6-months to come into compliance and get an approved site plan.]