Keeping the Lights on at Casa de Luz
The iconic Austin eating-and-meeting place dearly wants to continue pursuing its macrobiotic mission – but can't quite seem to comply with public safety codes
When Eduardo Longoria started Casa de Luz in Austin almost 24 years ago, he believed food was the answer. He doesn't think that anymore.
Now, he says, the solution is food and community. It's a fortuitous shift, as community just might be the thing that ends up saving Casa, which has faced mounting pressure from the city in the last few years.
Technically, Casa de Luz ("House of Light") is a nonprofit business that rents space from the Shambala Corporation, which owns the land, and which Longoria explains is owned by another corporation that is owned by his children, because "back then he didn't want to own it." (A San Diego Casa de Luz managed by Longoria's son opened in May of 2012.)
Casa has been much in the news lately because of a longstanding dispute with the city over the amount of parking required for its facilities – and whether the question can be resolved by some sort of lot-sharing arrangement with a nearby city park. But beyond that issue is the fact that Casa has been out of compliance for many years with provisions of the city's building codes – including public safety provisions. The various disputes have generated considerable pending (and unpaid) fines, and landed Casa (and its community members) in front of various commissions and the City Council. As the Chronicle went to press, it remained unclear whether Casa and the city have found a way to resolve the outstanding problems.
Longoria – better known to his friends as "Wayo" – is passionate about the mission of Casa de Luz. Although the kitchen serves meals to over 200 people each day, he bristles at the notion that it is a "restaurant" – Casa de Luz, he explains, is an "experiential, educational community center." As the website puts it – in the sort of romantic rhetoric never far from the lips of Casa's defenders – "To say Casa de Luz is a restaurant leaves most of the story untold. Enter the gates and let the peaceful gardens ease your mind. Large tables build community by inviting guests to meet others and share something new. The nourishment is shared as much as eaten. Come dine with us and discover a little more."
That "little more" is found in other services that Casa offers on its site – massage and relaxation therapies, as well as a robust calendar of daily classes and events that include such things as yoga, acting classes, "karma dog training," and "authentic relating." In front of the restaurant is the independently run Parkside Montessori School, which Longoria says is considering relocation; should that happen, he says he might open a new school.
The food at Casa is accompanied by more theory than you find at most restaurants. Over dinner with Longoria, we touched on topics like sugar addiction, the need for intestinal cleanses, and the ethics of serving meat. That might be polite mealtime conversation throughout Austin, but as Longoria tells it, at Casa there is also a complex theory behind the food being served.
I confess I didn't grasp all of it – oil is a big no-no, because it is prone to rancidity. Also "whole food" – unprocessed in any way – is important, though some things can be crushed, like the sesame seeds that dilute the Himalayan salt on every table. The water is fluoride-filtered, carbon-filtered, and "vortex–activated" (just like it sounds). Animal products and by-products are verboten. Vinegar is sometimes "alive" ... and sometimes not. (The alive vinegar is better, I think, but that may have just been dinner conversation.) There was also a lot of recommended reading for the macrobiotic set.
Though it's not quite that easy, either. Longoria explains that the term "macrobiotic" food (i.e., "large life") misses the point. Like some of the food served, the term must be taken as a whole – as a reflection of what he calls "the great life" that extends beyond the sustenance offered.
The Casa Vibe
Whatever the theory behind it, the food is delicious. I had kabocha squash for the first time – an Asian acorn squash, prepared in a soup that tasted like a lighter split pea. The salad – mixed greens, with a pepita parsley cilantro akin to creamy tahini pesto – was just flat-out great. (Although I will never forsake olive oil, no matter how prone to rancidity, I intend to re-create this dressing soon.) The entrée consisted of brown rice, enfrijoladas with "sun cheese" (a house specialty) and guacamole, veggies, pickled beets, and kale with an almond-sunflower seed sauce (also pretty good). I don't know what "sun cheese" is, and I didn't understand why tortillas get special dispensation because corn is the original grain of the gods – but I'll accept any excuse to include tortillas at any time. The meal was excellent – why look a gift sun cheese in the mouth?
The meal brims with a vitality rarely found outside of one's own kitchen which, it seems, is kind of the point. Casa de Luz is designed to feel like your own dining room – if you have a very large, very friendly family. The room is filled with ample, inviting round tables where plenty of folks await, ready and willing to discuss that morning's yoga class. It won't be to everyone's taste – but those who miss the camaraderie of summer camp mess halls and find their food wanting in theoretical justification would do well to find a nearby parking place (somewhere), or just bike or schlep on over for a meal.
John Richter, like many customers and supporters, describes himself as an evangelist for Casa; he estimates that he has been eating there for about 14 years, sometimes several times a day. (Richter also launched a Change.org petition in support of the business that had more than 2,700 signatures a couple of weeks ago.) Richter is one of the community members of Casa who is trying to help sort things out. (At the most recent Building and Standards Commission meeting, Longoria ceded control to community members, and was fetched from the hallway crowd only after the commission requested his presence. He explained that he hadn't planned to speak, because he was too emotionally attached to "the whole thing.")
Richter praises the Casa food, and emphasizes the community-style dining that allows him to make friends with people he reckons he otherwise never would have met. He's been working to save something that he feels is unique in Austin: "There are places that are vegetarian, there are a few whole-food places, but I'm not sure I've ever seen a larger community vibe or feel than Casa."
This "vibe" is part of the macrobiotic sensibility of Casa. Everyone is served the same meal, sharing the experience as part of a family. "You eat what you are served in the Hippocratic tradition of making food your medicine," explains Longoria.
I'm not going to pretend that I know what that means, precisely, but it's hard to ignore the fact that the "macrobiotic community" of Casa de Luz is a strong one; those who support Casa do so fervently. They claim without irony that the diet has saved their lives – and they do so whether the nominal discussion is about fire codes, parking, or any other matter that has found Casa de Luz on the wrong side of the law for the past 10 years or so.
Earth to Mars ...
And for those who have wanted to help Casa – within or without the "Casa community" – it's been a frustrating process. Many agree that Casa is a special Austin place, worthy of preservation, but its history of code compliance complaints stretch back years. In partial response, Casa's defenders offer various conspiracy theories about land grabs; but the case files for 1701 Toomey Road tell a different story, with multiple chance after chance granted by the city, year after year after year (see "The City of Austin vs. Casa de Luz: A Chronology," p.20).
On May 22, a clearly exasperated Building and Standards Commission extended the deadline once again, giving Casa until the commission's June 26 meeting to come up with a plan – any plan – to address fire code problems: primarily entrance and exit improvements and a convincing attempt to install a sprinkler system. A similar warning was given at the September 2012 meeting, when commissioners gave Casa 90 days to bring its building into compliance. The House of Light didn't do so, and has since racked up $19,428.57 in fines as a consequence – a total that grows by $1,000 each week. Nonetheless, perhaps swayed by the emotional crowd that spilled out of the hearing room and into the halls, the commission voted to extend the grace period another month. Commissioner David Brown said he was bothered by Casa's approach, pointing to the people who filled the City Hall room and crowded the windows, holding signs that – he pointed out – asked the commission to do something that Casa had not done itself, and fix all of the problems threatening to shut its doors.
"We don't want to close you," Brown said. "That's the furthest thing from what we want to do. But there are certain things we have to do. And if you don't come into compliance, we have to do something," added an exasperated Brown, who by that point had endured several testimonials on Casa-cured health problems. "I don't care what it's doing – if it's bringing Mars to Earth, we just can't keep it going.
"You cannot get a permit [for the fixes that need to be done] because you have not done what you are supposed to do, or you did things that you shouldn't have done," he continued. "And the energy you've created in all of these people, with all of these signs that indicate to us that we need to do something that you have not done ... that bothers me."
A lack of energy has never been Casa de Luz's problem. A lack of sprinklers, or safe passage to the building for firefighters, has. Also a problem? The building has a certificate of occupancy as a school cafeteria. While students from the neighboring Montessori school "sometimes" eat there, according to advocates, Planning and Development Review Director Greg Guernsey insists that the business has been misidentified since 2003. Guernsey has faced resistance for his reasonable, albeit planning-perspective view, that the establishment is a restaurant, and should be zoned as such and abide by the relevant ordinances. "Experiential, educational, community center" may be a much beloved, even apt description, but it isn't a zoning category.
Complicating matters even more, evidence was introduced at the May meeting of the BSC that Casa de Luz had added an unapproved medical office ("Nourish, an Integrative Medical Practice") and rented out an unpermitted building since the September meeting, when it was given its last last chance.
Joe Limon, a battalion chief at the Austin Fire Department, reiterated to the commission that his main concern is public safety, for customers as well as firefighters, should there be a fire. Because Casa is located so far from the street, it is required either to install an approved sprinkler system or remove the vegetation along the path that leads to the building. Yet, according to a code compliance presentation, not only are there still no sprinklers, more vegetation had been planted since the last hearing.
"In our business, every second counts. That's what it comes down to," said Limon, who at the time of the meeting said that he had seen no progress towards a remedy.
The Fire Next Time
It would seem hard to argue against mandated sprinklers, or ready fire access to a building (especially one so heavily used and located so close to a school). Yet one Casa supporter, Laura Luthy, did just that at the BSC meeting. She dismissed the battalion chief's concerns, saying it had never occurred to her to "feel unsafe."
"I always feel safe there. It's never occurred to me that I wouldn't be able to get out of the building if anything happened," said Luthy. "It's a place that I immediately feel at peace."
Despite those assurances, the risk of fire is not just a theoretical possibility. According to Longoria's own brief history of Casa, it is a successor to the another macrobiotic project. "CDL is the continuation of the East West Center of Austin that got its start in 1985 on South Fifth," Longoria wrote. "It burned down in 1989. ... It was then that we picked up the baton and put CDL together with shoestrings and gum."
Nevertheless, most of the arguments at the BSC – which was tasked only with evaluating the fire code violations – centered on the macrobiotic diet, benefits of meditation, and intangible good that Casa de Luz brings to Austin. It is, they argue, a place unlike any other in town. Does it follow that it should be treated differently as well?
"I totally understand Mr. Brown's frustration," says Richter. "I had a complete misunderstanding of what was supposed to be happening there. I think everybody else did too. [The commission] just wanted to hear what we've done [on code compliance], and the vast majority of people who got up to speak were advocating how different or special [Casa is] instead of saying, 'here's what we've done to be in compliance.' I think some of that has worked not in our favor."
Richter notes that when Casa moved to Toomey Road in 1989, there was no anticipation of what would happen in the future, or how the area – and Austin – would grow. He recalls the Toomey Road of his youth, which he remembers as desolate. Now, Casa sits in a canyon of upscale condos on some of the most valuable land in town.
He adds that recently there has been a shift in supporters' thinking, evolving past the idea that, because Casa is a special place, it deserves special treatment. He thinks the community has realized that being in compliance with the city will allow Casa to continue to do what makes it special.
If this "evolution" is indeed taking place, it will be a relief to a whole lot of people. At the BSC meeting, Commissioner Charles Cloutman stated as plainly as he could that he had no argument that Casa de Luz is a wonderful place. But, like all other wonderful places in the city, it also needs to comply with the fire code. "The point is that it has to be safe. The point is that it's out of compliance. The point is, if you get away with it, who else gets away with it? You can't double-deal," said Cloutman. "We see no good faith on your side. That's my issue here. ... You are throwing up your hands instead of dealing with it. It doesn't seem like you really want to stay open. What do you want? Do you want to fight? You don't seem to be wanting to work on any of the issues that are fixable.
"If you had a fire in the kitchen, could you get those people out?" asked Cloutman. "The answer today, six months later, is no."
One More Chance
That resistance may be on the verge of changing. Though the Casa supporters fear they are in a Kafkaesque nightmare – in which improvements that are needed can't be made until the tangled, ongoing parking situation is resolved – they say they are taking the request for a plan and running with it.
John Schwarzschild, a former manager at Casa de Luz, has helped spearhead the campaign to get Casa up to code. He explained that, while he is unsure how they are going to extract themselves from the tangled permitting process, the group has taken steps since the May BSC meeting, opening a Casa de Luz compliance fund, working with a sprinkler company to create a sprinkler design, establishing an escrow account for fire inspections, designing an alternate emergency exit, and investigating the possibility of tapping into a water main for a hydrant, or using a hydrant planned for neighboring condos currently under construction.
The community is also compiling a list of things they have done (or tried to do) in the past to increase safety, like changing the opening direction of the doors, installing new exit signs, and improving access to the building. Schwarzschild says that Casa has taken steps in the past to remedy the situation, but has been denied building permits because of the ongoing parking deficiency, a predicament unlikely to be resolved before the next BSC meeting.
"I'm not sure where we are going with this. ... But they have said that they don't care about parking, they just care about fire safety, so they want to see progress going towards fire safety. So we are doing all this," said Schwarzschild. The hope is that, even if the permits are held up because of the ongoing parking deficiency, the movement will show enough good faith to satisfy the city until that mess is sorted out.
In a concurrent process, City Council has several propositions on the table which will, in theory, address the ongoing parking issues. A proposal to allow businesses to lease city parkland parking – a thinly veiled attempt to fix the parking deficiencies at Casa de Luz – was postponed indefinitely last week. In its place, Council passed a separate, tentative proposal to have staff consider installing parking meters in the Butler Shores Park parking lot as a way of ensuring that spaces will be available to nearby businesses and their customers. At the preceding work session, sponsoring CM Chris Riley called it (without openly winking) "an alternate way of going about trying to find a solution for a particular problem." It's unclear whether the new proposal will survive staff and stakeholder review, but it is scheduled to return to Council in August.
"[The city] is like, 'come on guys, let's get this done,' and we're like, 'come on, let's get this done,'" says Schwarzschild. "Everyone just wants to see this go away."