Will Walgreens Save Taco X-Press – or Vice Versa?

Neighbors torn over union of chain store and Southside icon

South Austin neighbors are debating both the engineering design and the ambiance of a proposed Walgreens drug store at South Lamar and Bluebonnet Lane. Walgreens developers are sweetening the deal with an offer to build a new Taco X-Press restaurant about 100 feet from its existing site.
South Austin neighbors are debating both the engineering design and the ambiance of a proposed Walgreens drug store at South Lamar and Bluebonnet Lane. Walgreens developers are sweetening the deal with an offer to build a new Taco X-Press restaurant about 100 feet from its existing site.

To Maria Corbalan, the prospect of a new, permanent home for her popular Taco X-Press restaurant would be an entrepreneurial dream fully realized. But this dream of a deal has a make-or-break catch: South Austin neighbors, and ultimately the City Council, would need to embrace the whole enchilada – in this case a new Walgreens drug store – for the funky little icon to secure its future.

Walgreens is making its second attempt to win a zoning change on a large tract at South Lamar and Bluebonnet Lane, currently home to a trailer park. Last summer, the council sided with neighbors and turned down the proposal. So Walgreens developer David Darr went back to the drawing board and came up with a reconfigured proposal that includes a rather unusual carrot. Under this plan, Darr would build Corbalan a new Taco X-Press – about 100 feet from the existing site – and Corbalan would buy the property, thus ending her long-standing dread of displacement by new development.

"This is going to cost [the developers] a pretty penny," Corbalan said of the proposal. "I'm really praying that this deal goes through." The business owner has leased the land since 1995, but the restaurant's future has been uncertain since the landowner put the property up for sale about three years ago.

Corbalan's success didn't happen overnight. Her entrepreneurial endeavors began 10 years ago with a gift shop called Curiosity Killed the Cat. But that business stayed afloat for just over a year before going kaput. Then she tried her hand at running a convenience store – Sugar and Spice – but that failed, too. Then she bought a trailer and sold tacos out of it. She started pulling in $70 a day, then bought a bigger trailer and sold more tacos, building up to $300 a day in sales. Finally, she moved into her current space, which today is a South Austin institution. She wants the new space to look as kitschy and laid-back as the current place. Plans call for roughly the same size restaurant, with a larger indoor seating area.

Adding Taco X Press to the Walgreens mix has caused some ambivalence among neighbors. On the one hand, they want to see Corbalan and her restaurant succeed, but not necessarily on the coattails of a 14,500-square-foot outpost of a national chain retailer that would lay down stakes between the new Taco X-Press and the recently opened Wireless Toyz.

"In a sense, helping Taco X-Press probably gains the developer goodwill with neighbors," said Kevin Lewis, president of the South Lamar Neighborhood Association. "But the restaurant would continue with or without [Darr's] plan, and we're not inclined to ignore negative aspects of the Walgreens plan just because it helps a place we like. In a way," Lewis added, "it does complicate the whole question."

Given the neighborhood association's sentiments, Corbalan has been door-knocking in the area to try to rally support for her proposed deal with Walgreens. And last week, Darr and Corbalan met with SLNA members to try to win their endorsement before the group voted on whether to accept or reject the proposal. It wasn't that simple, however. The NA agreed to support the project but to oppose access to the site from Bluebonnet Lane, out of concern that it would increase traffic on that small collector street running east from Lamar. Residents would prefer either re-engineering the plan to reduce traffic on Bluebonnet or removing that access driveway from the plan altogether. The developer said last week that he would continue negotiating with neighbors on that front before taking the proposal to the city. He said he is also proposing to widen Bluebonnet and to install flood-control measures.

Apart from traffic concerns, neighbors say they would prefer a strong local presence in this stretch of South Lamar, which is starting to see a renaissance of new independent businesses cropping up in some of the vacant buildings along the strip. "I suppose it's possible to coexist [with Walgreens] in the same way that there's a Starbucks on South Congress," said Lewis. "But one of the original objections to Walgreens ... was that it's not a local, unique business. The "Keep Austin Weird' idea is not just about funky clothing shops and tattoo parlors; it's about local ownership and appropriate scale."

Indeed, there is little that is unique about a Walgreens drug store, but Darr, the developer, points out the unusual aspect of a national chain helping a local icon stay in one place. "It's unique from our perspective," Darr said. "We feel like Walgreens has been very cooperative, although Maria is clearly the story here. And to be a part of that story is something that makes you feel good."

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Taco Xpress, Maria Corbalan, Walgreens, Kevin Lewis, South Lamar Neighborhood Association

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