Naked City

More South Congress Angst

Will the historic home of three original Austin businesses fall to redevelopment – or has the South Austin gossip mill just gotten out of control?

Rapidly evolving South Congress Avenue has become a lightning rod for speculation, of both the economic and emotional kinds. But in recent years, the expressed wishes of neighboring residents in Bouldin Creek and Travis Heights have not necessarily been consistent with the entertainment-related endeavors of a handful of enterprising SoCo property owners.

Güero's restaurant owner Rob Lippincott, whose property speculations and crowd-drawing festivals have become fodder for many of these grumblings, clashed with neighbors most recently over the escalated influx of partyers his South Austin Celebration brought to the area during Labor Day weekend. Now, the future of the historic post office building (located directly behind Güero's) which Lippincott owns – currently home to Eco-Wise, Vulcan Video, and Service Menswear – has again come under question. Lippincott's latest acquisition, of the auto dealership just north of Güero's, has sparked rumors of large-scale redevelopment of the whole block.

Earlier this year, the Chronicle reported that Eco-Wise's lease with Lippincott would not be eligible for renewal upon termination, as shop owner Jim Holland said, "The neighborhood will lose three valuable businesses to a parking garage" ("Saving South Congress – for Whom?," Sept. 3). The next day, Lippincott posted a statement on the South River City Citizens e-mail listserv. "For those who rely on the Chronicle for news," Lippincott wrote, "as I told the reporter, Jim Holland and I have had no discussions one way or the other about lease renewal. Also, although we have been contemplating a parking garage, which would conform to the newly adopted neighborhood plan ... it would not be located at the site now occupied by Vulcan Video, Eco-wise, and Service."

As for the businesses, Lippincott said this week that "We'll probably work them into the larger plan for the area, but I don't have one yet." He said the properties' leases are still good for more than two years, and that he hoped the owners hadn't heard anything suggesting that he wanted them to leave early. Lippincott maintained that he and Holland had not communicated about the building beyond a conversation in passing the day Lippincott closed on the property; he said Monday, "I might tear it down, that could easily happen, but that's not my plan right now."

A posting on Eco-Wise's Web site ("South Congress Rumor Mill Run Amok,", cites the earlier Chronicle story, and also apparently refers to Lippincott's listserv comments, saying, "In the later rebuttal article [that is, Lippincott's listserv posting] in which Rob states he isn't evicting us, this statement is technically true; he's tearing the building down when the lease is up." The page continues, "Plans for the current site have not yet been determined. It is slated to either be a parking garage, else apartments/condos, else retail space (with higher rent, of course), else a mixture of these things." Eco-Wise owner Holland says he was unaware of the information on the store's Web page until we pointed it out to him, and that he is unsure of the statements' origin.

Meanwhile, neighbors continue to voice fears concerning the district's apparent progression away from a primarily community-centered shop area toward an upscale regional destination street characterized by expensive boutiques and entertainment businesses aimed primarily at nonresidents. Gail Armstrong, proprietor of Off the Wall, said additional retail would bring more folks and more business, but he's suspicious of some establishments' nature. "What's most worrisome is the trend away from variety to a more narrow cast of restaurants and bars," he said. "It's basic economics. ... They pay higher rent than mom-and pop-places like mine, and landlords have to cover their expenses."

Holland said that he's considering relocation options, emphasizing that Eco-Wise is not going out of business. "Where can you go? Where's the funk?" he said, noting the current trend for many small Austin businesses to migrate to the Eastside. He predicts "domino gentrification" there, much like that currently happening on South Congress.

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