Hyde Parking

A Neighborhood Caught in a Clash Between Eateries



photograph by John Anderson

A hot cauldron of emotions and inflamed public opinion is threatening to boil over at the corner of 43rd and Duval. At this commercial crossroads in the Hyde Park neighborhood, much heat has been generated lately over the future of a restaurant space. Restaurateurs Greg Cooper, Jon Shannon, and Amelia-Rey Shannon are eager to acquire the 2,500 sq. ft. home of the failed Hyde Park Bakery in Duval Center for one of their Austin Java Company eateries, but Bick Brown, the successful proprietor of the center's Hyde Park Bar & Grill, smells competition in their menu and has been trying to block the move. This summer the conflict has intensified, with both sides seeking to win the hearts and minds of the area's residents and even drawing the mighty Hyde Park Neighborhood Association (HPNA), a group long concerned with protecting the residential integrity and character of Austin's venerable first suburb, into the fray. The struggle has been romantically depicted by some as a David and Goliath battle, with the earnest young Austin Java group pitted against the powerful and stubborn Brown. That view, however, ignores the history underlying the struggle, a history that includes Brown's pioneering efforts in the center, a longstanding contractual agreement between Brown and Duval Center manager Ed Shaw, and a neighborhood that has been bloodied in many a battle over how much parking is too much.

Restaurateur Bick Brown has invested 15 years of his life and plenty of his money to make the corner of 43rd and Duval a viable dining destination that is neighborhood-friendly. In addition to his American restaurant, he currently operates the Dolce Vita gelateria and has an Asian diner in development in the former Dismukes Pharmacy space next to the Fresh-Plus grocery. He is an active participant in a committee organized to promote area beautification and enhance pedestrian activity there. As a result, he has a hard-earned proprietary interest in business development on what he calls "my corner." After years of combat with former Duval Center owner Eugene Wukash over parking problems, Brown gained control of the parking lot behind the center when brothers Earl and Eugene Wukash divided and sold their mutual real estate holdings in 1990. He subsequently invested thousands in surfacing and landscaping the lot plus making hefty payments to the city in lieu of installing water retention ponds. The center itself was purchased at that point by Houston real estate investor Sara Sanders, mother of center manager and former Hyde Park Bakery owner Ed Shaw. Sanders and Shaw declined to purchase or lease the parking lot when they bought the building. "When Ed expanded the bakery space a few years ago, we made a deal," recalls Bick Brown. "I leased him the necessary spaces with the agreement that I would have the right of first refusal if he ever sold the bakery or the center." With an eye toward maintaining future economic diversity, savvy businessman Brown also stipulated that the 12 parking spaces would only be made available to complementary businesses of which he approved. That agreement became a problem when Shaw put the failing bakery up for sale. Complications quickly arose.

Shaw's initial asking price for the 2,500 sq.ft. space with lease-hold improvements and some old equipment was over $100K. Brown admits that he offered Shaw a fraction of that amount, which Shaw refused. At that point, Brown himself began calling on local bakery owners, doing his best to interest them in becoming his neighbor. "This neighborhood really wants a bakery in that space," Brown insists, "and a bakery would complement the existing businesses." While owners of such popular bakeries as Sweetish Hill and Texas French Bread recognize the Hyde Park space is prime real estate with great sales potential, none of them seemed to feel that access to the location itself was worth Shaw's asking price or that the mark-up on baked goods and coffee would support such a big debt burden. Additionally, Hyde Park Bakery's intangible "good will" value was diminished by print and television coverage of problems with the IRS over payroll taxes and the failure of two health department inspections in one year. "We'd love to be in there," explains Russell Milner, owner of Russell's Bakery & Coffee Shop in southwest Austin, "but in the condition it's in, the price was just too rich for us." Texas French Bread operations executive Murph Wilcott admits that he'd love to open a Hyde Park store but says, "We're waiting to see how the parking variance fight turns out before we make an offer."

The parking variance fight arose when a healthy new Austin business ripe for expansion made Shaw an undisclosed offer on the Hyde Park space, backed with a letter of intent and earnest money. The Austin Java Company is a thriving restaurant and coffee shop on the edge of the Old West Austin neighborhood, just north of the intersection of 12th and Lamar on Parkway. A little over two years ago, three energetic young entrepreneurs, Greg Cooper, Jon Shannon, and Amelia Rey-Shannon, took a space formerly famous as the home of the Terminix bug and converted it into a happening spot that's busy for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They are eager to expand into Hyde Park, hoping to duplicate their success as a pleasant, affordable hang-out in another inner city neighborhood. "We love it over there," Greg Cooper says, "and we've had a very positive response from the neighborhood." Perhaps they didn't fully understand the ramifications of the parking deal that Bick Brown had in place with Ed Shaw. Regardless, they made a deal with Ed Shaw and announced their impending arrival in Hyde Park before securing leases on the 12 necessary parking spaces in writing from Bick Brown. At that point, things began to get sticky.

When Brown became aware of the deal, he paid some courtesy calls at Austin Java's Parkway location. "At first, I thought they were a bakery/coffee shop," he recalls, "but the more I looked at their menu, it's too close to what I serve at Hyde Park Bar & Grill for me to be comfortable with it. I don't have anything against them, but I'm not leasing parking spaces to somebody who offers direct competition." Brown insists that he would also refuse to play ball with a Mexican eatery that might compete with neighboring Julio's or a vegetarian spot offering competition to Mother's Cafe across the street. "I'd like to see diverse, complementary businesses," Brown says, "and I'm just trying to make sure that happens." For their part, the Austin Java owners maintain that while the two menus have some items in common (chicken quesadillas, veggie burgers), their menu is different enough from Hyde Park Bar & Grill's to be complementary rather than competitive and has plenty of homemade baked goods for

the bakery-hungry crowd. They also feel that they offer a completely different atmosphere. "We're a very casual restaurant with counter service," asserts Greg Cooper, "the kind of place where people come and sit to read or study." Bick Brown remains unmoved and holds out hope that a bakery or other complementary business will locate in Duval Center.

Whether Austin Java poses a real commercial threat to Hyde Park Bar & Grill or not, Brown secured control of the parking lot against just such an eventuality years ago and has the right to lease spaces to whomever he chooses. In order to make their deal work, Ed Shaw and his potential buyers made a pitch to the HPNA Steering Committee in late August, asking the leadership to support their request for a parking variance before the Board of Adjustment in September. After considering the variances already "grandfathered" in at Duval Center and listening to what Shaw had to say, the steering committee declined to support the parking variance. "We didn't rule for or against anybody," explains current HPNA vice-president Jennifer Vickers, "We adhered to our mission, which is to protect and enhance the character of the neighborhood." The Steering Committee has historically been hesitant to change zoning with parking variances, fighting long and hard to preserve the residential integrity of the neighborhood. HPNA president Lin Team explains it this way: "You don't zone people or businesses, you zone property. That zoning change would stay with the property no matter what happened to the business there. It would be unwise for the neighborhood to grant zoning that would result in more parked cars on the street."

Disappointed with the results of the committee meeting, the Austin Java team went on the offensive and upped the public relations ante last week with a mass mailing to the Hyde Park zip code. Much like the American-Statesman article mailed with it, the inflammatory letter again cast them as righteous Davids fighting the injustice of Goliath. It extends an invitation to Hyde Park residents to visit Austin Java and sign a petition of support, offering a 30% discount with the presentation of the letter. HPNA president Lin Team's address and phone number were included (with no warning) as well as the address for the Board of Adjustment at the City Hall annex. Greg Cooper is pleased with the support generated by the letter. "We've gotten 400 signatures so far," he reported a few days after the letters went out, "and our supporters in the neighborhood say they hope to get enough votes at the general meeting on Monday to override the leadership's recommendation." (see sidebar) In the wake of the Austin Java letter, Bick Brown sent out a mailer of his own to correct what he perceived as misrepresentations of his position and to provide residents with a fuller picture of the situation.

Regardless of the neighborhood association vote, the ultimate decision on any parking variance rests in the hands of the city's Board of Adjustment. Though they take neighborhood recommendations into consideration, parking variances are not automatically granted because they have supportive petitions, as the Austin Java letter suggests. All restaurants with up to 2,500 square feet of space are required by law to have one parking space per 100 square feet. Restaurants seeking to vary that requirement must file a variance request form in a timely manner with the Zoning Review division and appear before a public hearing at the Board of Adjustment. Interested citizens may sign up to speak at the public hearing for or against a proposed variance. Once a variance is granted, it remains with the property rather than the business, regardless of any contractual agreement to the contrary. "Agreements that tie a variance to any particular business or restaurant would be unenforceable," explains zoning review division staffer Susan Walker. "The zoning change would remain with the property."

This month's Board of Adjustment meeting will be held Monday, September 15, at 6:30pm in the second floor conference room at 301 W. Second Street. It should be a lively exercise in Austintatious democracy. Even if things don't go their way before the board, the Austin Java partners still have plenty of expansion options. The increased public profile delivered by the American-Statesman story has generated some invitations. "We've had several people contact us who'd just love to have an Austin Java in their building," says Greg Cooper. For his part, Duval Center manager Ed Shaw would like to see the issue resolved quickly and amicably so that he can move back to Houston to oversee his family's businesses there. If Austin Java doesn't get the parking variance, Shaw says he's "willing to take offers" for the sale of the former bakery. "Worst case scenario," he says, "If Bick won't sign a parking deal with a restaurant, I guess I'll have to lease it to some retail business." Though small retail businesses are what the 47-year-old center was originally designed for, there should still be several local food businesses eager to negotiate.

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