By Steven Zettner, Editor, AustinDistrict7.org
This Thursday, Little Woodrow’s will request City Council to approve a destination bar and restaurant at 5425 Burnet Rd with weekend hours until 2 AM, few noise restrictions, and insufficient parking. On those merits, City Council should either deny the request outright, or impose careful conditions to address the project’s flaws.
That Council may actually approve the bar with few conditions speaks to the power of the South Congress development model in the minds of policymakers. A bar on Burnet, one with outdoor seating right on the street, will draw pedestrians and activate the corridor. It’s classic New Urbanism.
Bar Districts in Child-Friendly Communities
But many residents argue that the bar, and others that are sure to follow, will come at a high cost to the livability and child-friendly character of the surrounding neighborhoods. Planning Commissioner and south Austin resident Danette Chimenti told the commission last month that most visitors drive to her neighborhood off South Congress and treat it as a parking lot. “You have venues serving alcohol until midnight, 1 AM, 2 AM. Then you get people coming back to their cars drunk, partying, making a ton of noise. And it is difficult for seniors, for families, for anyone, who’s trying to sleep.” Walkability on S Congress itself has improved, Chimenti said. But off the corridor, pedestrian safety has sharply declined.
Over the last year, APD filed 27 alcohol-related crime reports for the 500’ area around 1400 S Congress. For 5500 Burnet there was just one such report.
Bigger than Trudy’s, Half the Parking
The Little Woodrow’s case has gone through several iterations over the last year (see Timeline). The most recent proposal retains 2 AM weekend hours and fails to adequately address noise concerns. But perhaps more important, it gets by with grossly insufficient parking.
If you went to UT, you probably know the Trudy’s on 30th Street north of campus – a destination restaurant in a pedestrian-oriented area. It’s 4,091 sq ft. Trudy’s relies on about 64 parking spaces, including an overflow lot across the street. That’s not enough – more cars park on area streets, which fortunately are mostly under-utilized.
The Little Woodrow’s bar and restaurant at 4,753 sq ft is larger than Trudy’s. But thanks in part to a 20% parking reduction for retail in the urban core, plus a just-released announcement that Little Woodrow’s will participate in a Car-to-Go program that waives the need for 10 spaces, the new Little Woodrow’s plan only needs to provide 31 parking spaces.
A site bigger than Trudy’s will have less than half of Trudy’s parking.
This at a site a quarter mile from the rapid bus station. In fairness, the reduction allows Little Woodrow’s to replace 11 pull-in parking spaces along Burnet with 4 parallel spaces. That improves pedestrian safety along Burnet. But Clay Ave, which has residential housing right across the street from Little Woodrow’s, including children, will face a chronic increase in traffic and on-street parking. Pedestrian safety there and on other nearby residential streets would decline.
Many residents, including myself, want transit-oriented AND age-balanced. We want to preserve the existing child-friendly character of the Burnet Rd area. But we’ve grown up in the age of global warming, and a walkable Burnet Rd makes sense to us. We’re planting shade trees, getting bond funding for sidewalks, and pondering the trade-offs of new kinds of housing along the corridor. We recognize that Austin needs new housing or it will be like San Francisco – a childless play-zone for millionaires. Something is needed, but SoCo doesn’t look right. Some bars and certainly alcohol-serving restaurants are fine, but Burnet already has them. If there’s no policy to limit bars, where does it stop?
Can those of us in the middle trust the City of Austin to get the details right, to guide Burnet towards a ‘live-work-play-sleep’ vision that is not too hot and not too cold? How far should we trust Imagine Austin, which clearly calls for infill development suitable for people of all ages, including children?
Imagine Austin is about balancing trade-offs, and getting the context right. There are several appropriate places in Austin for destination bar districts. A business this far from the rapid bus station and this tightly intertwined with medium-density residential housing should be sized appropriately to reduce traffic and parking impact, and should reflect the age-balanced character of what’s already there. Longer-term, it could be rezoned as medium-density or live-work housing. In weighing the trade-offs of this case, Council should err on the side of the residents.
We’ll learn more about City Council’s vision for Burnet on Thursday.