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City Hall Hustle: The Lure of Rainey Street

What happens when a neighborhood grows without planning forethought

By Wells Dunbar, Fri., Jan. 28, 2011

At City Council's last meeting on Jan. 13, speakers invested in the future of Rainey Street – where a burgeoning bar and restaurant scene has received mixed reviews from neighboring residents – kept council deliberating the repeal of an outdoor music permit for Lustre Pearl for more than an hour. While acquiescing to a neighbor's repeal request, council instructed the bar to reapply for the permit once related issues on Rainey – parking, pedestrian safety, and more – had been met, promising that fixes would be delivered shortly. Now, a council item addressing those issues is here, although it's unclear how long it will take to implement.

Item 35 on this week's council agenda, sponsored by Mike Martinez, Randi Shade, and Chris Riley, directs City Manager Marc Ott to "develop short and long-term recommendations on how to address pedestrian safety, traffic congestion, and parking issues in the Rainey Street District while continuing to encourage redevelopment of the area." It also directs Transportation Department staff to examine parking fixes in the area, including potential use of city-owned property, and gives Ott a 60-day deadline.

The situation at Rainey Street is unique, as the area – once a sleepy residential street, albeit nestled at Downtown's southeastern edge – was rezoned as part of the Central Business District in 2004, in hopes of incentivizing development near the Austin Convention Center and the since-built Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center. But while grander development has stalled, bars and eateries have flocked to Rainey, since CBD zoning enables traffic-heavy cocktail bar or restaurant use without any additional zoning request.

Outdoor music permits are the latest wrinkle in the Rainey story, as exemplified by the Lustre Pearl controversy. It also has some promoters and permit procurers nervous that additional changes may be on the way – just before the musical onslaught of South by Southwest. Venue and sound permitting gun-for-hire Gary Etie, writing on his blog Austin City Per­mits, opines that "proposed revisions to the Noise & Sound Ordinance ... are soon to come out from under the cover of backdoor 'stakeholders' meetings." More optimistically, he cites City Hall sources indicating that temporary, multiday sound permits – a fix offered by the city last SXSW for venues that don't ordinarily host music – will appear on council's agenda some time in February, offering a short-term fix for places like Lustre Pearl.

While Martinez says this week's item "is all about Rainey Street and some of the other issues outside of music we're facing there," he also says examining outdoor music permits is "absolutely" a part of the larger picture the city's trying to address there. "We want to try and have a positive impact on some of the concerns before we start considering and contemplating outdoor live music venues along Rainey Street – which I think are going to happen eventually." Martinez says he recently sat down with Lustre Pearl owner Bridget Dunlap (who also owns other Rainey Street watering holes) for a "good meeting," adding: "She wants to be successful and doesn't want to be antagonistic to community concerns .... She wants to sit down and work together."

But there's still a chance of additional permitting changes beyond both Rainey Street and outdoor music – the process of opening a bar in the Central Business District. At its previous meeting, council had discussed the possibility of a public notice requirement for opening a cocktail lounge in the CBD – not a zoning change, but an additional public requirement that would conceivably bring the matter before council. "It appears in the Downtown master plan as proposed," says Martinez. "They want us to consider that, so it's not an anomaly, something pulled out of thin air – it's something that's been talked about a lot."

This Week's Agenda

The Rainey Street contretemps may be the most interesting item on council's relatively slight, 55-item agenda, though Item 55, a neighbor-led appeal of the Irie Bean Coffee Bar's outdoor music permit, may mine similar territory. Council-sponsored items of interest include Item 34, from Martinez, Shade, and Lee Lef­fing­well, which repurposes the 2006 Bond Oversight Committee to examine 2010's bond spending while preserving the makeup of the group. More action can be found in the zoning agenda, including second and third readings of rezoning for Roy G. Guerrero Colorado River Metropolitan Park, potentially clearing the way for disc golf there (Items 46 and 47), plus final reads on the beleaguered Bradford-Nohra house, the ailing Hyde Park manse that the Historic Land­mark Commission is seeking historic zoning for, over the owner's objections. Though the item passed 4-3 on first read, the owner's objection requires that there be a 6-1 supermajority to bestow historic status, which is very unlikely to occur – meaning we can finally put this marathon to rest ... for now, at least.


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