What Do Neighborhoods Want?

Battle of the Week

The Balcones Civic Association has been neighborhood planning since long before it was cool. The group formed in 1972 and created its first master plan for the area the same year, with the help of the friendly policy wonks at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. On the BCA's watch, the neighborhood — bounded by Highways 360 and 183, the MoPac Expressway, and Spicewood Springs Road — has changed from a far-flung, low-key enclave to a usually willing partner of the juggernaut that is the Arboretum shopping center and its auxiliary big-box destinations.

Take, as an example of the association's civic pedigree, this bold claim: It was the BCA folks' success in keeping an Albertson's grocery store (too much traffic, they said) out of their neighborhood that inspired the more famous crusade of Triangle Park neighbors to stop Randalls (which they haven't) and Act III Theatre (which they have). "Those people got involved in that because of our success out here," said Jim Hooser, BCA president and veteran of many legislative battles as assistant to former State Senator John Montford of Lubbock. The Albertson's campaign was won at around the same time the Triangle debate began to heat up, and Hooser said some of the Hyde Park people came up north to get tips from an old-timer on how the day could be won.

And what of the city's new neighborhood planning program? "We've been engaged in that particular process since 1972."

So why did these land-use forefathers lose their latest battle at city hall? The battle in question was over whether to award General Retail zoning status to Mirabella Restaurant, a new project from the owners of perennial Austin favorite Castle Hill Cafe. The BCA's executive committee members felt that the restaurant was a more "intense" use than the one that had previously been at the site, and could set a precedent for more regional — as opposed to neighborhood — businesses. In other words, the location's previous tenants, a bagel shop and a pancake house, didn't draw the kind of crowds that a new manifestation of a popular downtown dinner spot might. And while they had no complaints about Castle Hill's Fifth Street location, neighbors said they feared the restaurant was so popular that its uptown cousin would become a "Castle Hill North," drawing people from many areas of the city.

But according to the shopping center's owners, and the city planning commission, and now the Austin City Council, Mirabella would be an appropriate tenant for the center, which is a few blocks away from Anderson High School. "From a staff viewpoint, precedent had been set way back. The council said that restaurant use was appropriate for that center," said Antonio Gonzales of the Planning Department. "It's been tough to tell what their problem was," said Glenn Weichert, the attorney representing the owners of the Mesa Woods shopping center, site of the proposed restaurant. "It seems to me what they want is an unsuccessful, or a moderately successful restaurant."

The BCA says what it wants is to keep development with regional appeal out of the neighborhood, and on the main arterial roads that border it. They supported much of the Arbor-area development, but are resistant to seeing that development extend into the streets bordering their homes. "Outside people come in and say you have a wonderful neighborhood here, but we want to change [it to] the way we want it," said Hooser. He said that while the city has been generally supportive of the neighborhoods, in this case the personalities of the principals and the reputation of Castle Hill overwhelmed the facts. As far as the BCA was concerned, the petition submitted by the applicants, which contained over 1,000 signatures, supported their argument: that Mirabella would serve a regional, rather than a neighborhood, clientele. "The people who supported the restaurant don't live in our area," he said.

But the neighborhood is getting assurances from the shopping center's owner that things at the new restaurant won't get out of hand. As part of the zoning approval, council directed the property owner to write a letter to the BCA outlining certain conditions of the Mirabella lease: that the lease was a "special circumstance," and not a precedent allowing a less restrictive use of the center. The conditions include no seating in the restaurant after 11pm, except on New Year's Eve and Valentine's Day, no pool table or video games on the premises, and no live rock bands disturbing the peace.

The most memorable BCA victory in recent times was the Albertson's incident of mid-1996. A local developer was working on a deal to install a 40,000-square-foot grocery, along with other retail stores, at Spicewood Springs and Mesa Drive. BCA, in conjunction with the Northwest Austin Civic Association, worked on the deal for over a year, before some "very frank discussions" at a meeting in Austin with regional Albertson's executives turned the tide. They "agreed with the common sense approach neighbors were presenting," said Hooser, though it's also likely that another form of persuasion — from a neighbor who stood up and offered a $1,000 check to buy "No Albertson's" yard signs — was instrumental in the victory.

The similarity between the Albertson's and Mirabella cases, says Hooser, is that the neighborhood's position is not an issue of sentiment or personality, but that "that particular land use at that particular location doesn't make sense. We are not a bunch of high school students voting on best-liked senior," he said.

But, as is often the case in land-use disputes, a good development is in the eye of the beholder. The BCA's own zoning committee was split over the issue, as were several local churches bordering the center (The Church of Christ and the Baptists came out against the restaurant; the Episcopalians came out for it, even offering eight of their precious parking spaces to catch Mirabella's overflow). There's no doubt that the debates over the neighborhood's future will rage on; at least now they'll get to argue over a plate of good, homegrown Austin food and a nice glass of wine.

This Week in Council:The council will consider a number of expenditures, including up to $135,000 for floormats for city buildings, $54,000 for steel library shelving, and $1.5 million for library books. Also, new members for almost 40 city boards and commissions are up for approval.

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