Trouble Brewing for Blue Owl?
Neighborhood concerns delay taproom
At least one thing is not in dispute: East Austin will soon be home to the nation's first sour-mash brewery. The creative spawn of Black Star Co-op alums Jeff Young and Suzy Shaffer, Blue Owl Brewing is already taking shape in an industrial space at the corner of Pedernales and Cesar Chavez.
While news of the brewery has left craft beer fanatics salivating, not everyone on the Eastside has welcomed the news with such enthusiasm. Blue Owl has become the latest totem of the diverse neighborhood's struggle with gentrification. In an area where public housing stands in the shadows of ultra-modern homes, many neighbors have expressed concerns of rising property taxes and dislocation. Critics cite traffic concerns at the busy intersection and the lack of appropriate public input in the permitting process.
According to Holly neighborhood resident Matthew LaBarbera, the brewery's proximity to single-family residences is a very real concern: "We've lived in this neighborhood for 19 years, and over the years we've seen some very serious accidents at the intersection. It has nothing to do with the fact that it is beer. My biggest problem is the traffic and parking ... It feels like it's going to overwhelm our neighborhood," he says.
While Blue Owl's plans do include ample parking, Young admits traffic will increase in the area as it would with any business. To address those concerns, Young and Shaffer met with numerous neighborhood organizations including the Holly Neighborhood Association, the East Town Lake Citizens NA, and El Concilio. Young says 95% of their conversations have been polite and beneficial, adding that ultimately Blue Owl strives to integrate into the neighborhood.
However, other neighbors mirror LaBarbera's concerns. A 50-year resident (who did not wish to be named) explained, "It seems they can do anything they want to. They say they listen to the community, but they don't. They say they know the neighborhood, but they don't. They're into business, but we're into neighborhoods ... We need the brewing company to listen. It's not what they say, it's what they're doing."
The public outcry was triggered by a proposed zoning change. Currently the property is zoned for mixed use; a proposed rezoning would allow commercial liquor sales, but include restrictive covenants proposed by Blue Owl. These include not serving hard alcohol, restricted hours of operation, no outdoor amplified sound, a minimum of 10 bicycle parking spaces, and a shared parking agreement – concessions that have thus far not quieted the criticism.
A zoning change is not necessary for on-site brewing, but it is needed to sell beer for consumption or takeaway, i.e., a taproom. "We want to have a small taproom for our brewery where we can sell our beer directly to the consumer," explains Young, adding that the restrictive covenants are a way to clarify the purpose of the taproom. "Future leaseholders of our space will have access to full CS-1 [commercial liquor sales] rights, meaning a cocktail lounge could move in if we are no longer there. The restrictive covenants were our and our landlord's show of good faith that the intent is not to convert the space beyond our intent of a tasting room," says Young.
As a result of neighborhood conversations, Young and Shaffer have decided to postpone the request for zoning change to give the neighborhood the opportunity to see that the tasting room will not adversely affect the community. The tasting room will open regardless, but Blue Owl will not be allowed to sell beer samples or any beers to-go.
"Our mission is to be a part of the neighborhood and be judged by our business practices and not restricted because our particular idiosyncrasies arising from the alcohol codes of Austin, Travis County, and Texas. Because of the highly charged political ramifications of development in East Austin, Suzy and I were admittedly out of our league. We were part of a larger context with the zoning change request, and we accept that and move on," said Young. "We look forward to being a part of the dynamic Eastside and showing Austin what we're about with beer and a great business."