My Migas, My City
Las Manitas and its neighbors become the next crossroads for the future of Downtown
If we lost Las Manitas Avenue Cafe, would Austin lose a piece of its funky, authentic soul? Is it ridiculous to consider an enchilada joint a cultural institution even if it has been a favorite hangout of Austin movers-and-shakers for 25 years? Will Austin have made a bargain with el diablo if we let Austin's only full-time downtown child-care center and a whole row of historic Congress Avenue storefronts that house unique, locally owned businesses be displaced or demolished in the name of progress?
Or, on the other hand, do we all just need to grow up as a city and accept the inevitability of change? Does Austin stand to gain so much from economic development and a denser downtown that we shouldn't let a few small businesses stand in the way?
Those are the questions in the downtown air in response to the news that three synergistic businesses in the 200 block of Congress - Las Manitas, Escuelita del Alma Learning Center, and Tesoros Trading Company - will lose their leases in February. The Finley Company, which owns the property, told the tenants this week that a deal has been struck with White Lodging Services Corp. to develop a multistory hotel on the site. White's local representative, Richard Suttle, assured the tenants the developer "wants to work with them" in its plans for the hotel. (Further details were not available at press time.) In addition to the 1900s-era low-rise buildings along Congress, the Finley Company owns most of the entire city block between Second and Third streets, extending back to Brazos.
On a map compiled recently by the Downtown Commission (see "Downtown's Tall Order," June 23), this block appears to be the only one remaining on Congress that potentially could take a full-block project of Frost Bank Tower proportions. According to the commission, under existing central business district zoning (which allows an 8:1 floor-to-area ratio), achieving the mayor's stated goal of housing 20,000 additional Austinites downtown would require developing enough new eight-story residential buildings to fill approximately 20 full city blocks. If every nouveau urbanite also expects to keep and park a car, their parking spaces alone would require 10 full city blocks of 10-level garages. (The mayor, aware of this foreboding arithmetic, has taken to singing the praises of the car-free life.)
In 2006, the financing is flowing to develop tall new residential towers and multiuse projects downtown. As Austin strives to hit the sweet spot of urban density, it's a seller's market. Over the years, the Finley Company has gradually bought individual properties to assemble a large tract, nearly a complete city block. Whether or not this particular deal comes to fruition, it seems inevitable that redevelopment of the block will eventually happen and happen big.
Separately owned are the historic buildings that house the nonprofit Latino arts organization La Peña and the neighboring Copa Bar & Grill, a multicultural club known for its salsa nights. The La Peña building, on the SE corner of Congress and Third, is the only one with a protective city historic landmark designation. Lidia and Cynthia Pérez, who also own Las Manitas (but not its building), purchased the circa-1881 former railroad hotel with the help of a local philanthropist in 1995. Originally the Pearl House, it was known as a house of ill repute in the Twenties, a Chinese restaurant in the Thirties, and eventually housed the original Avenue Cafe. Cynthia Pérez says they have no intention of selling the La Peña building.
The Copa building is owned by real-estate investor Mary Ogden, who has told her tenant that she has no plans to sell. While it lacks historic landmark designation, the building was once part of the railroad hotel next door. General manager and co-owner Silvio Ramos points out that the Latin nightclub (formerly Palmetto's) has been at the same location for more than 20 years, and it was the first to bring salsa music to Austin. Copa hosts special events with food and music for different cultural communities Colombian, Venezuelan, Costa Rican, Brazilian reggae, and even a Sahara Night. Ramos is not happy about losing his neighbors and is concerned about Copa's future: "It would be really sad for them to just disappear. But money talks, and small businesses lose out."
Tim Finley, who sits on both the Downtown Austin Alliance Board and the Downtown Commission, has declined requests to discuss his early-stage deal, or who the buyer/developer might be. "No one thinks the Finleys are bad, or are doing anything they don't have a right to do," noted Dina Flores, executive director of Escuelita. "They are nice people, a longtime Austin family who have eaten at the restaurant and always been very cordial," agrees Cynthia Pérez. But the uncertainty of what's to come is worrying them both.
Escuelita, the city's only Spanish-immersion preschool program, serves over 100 children. Las Manitas makes lunches for the children, who learn about art at La Peña; the restaurant staff get a break on tuition. "We believe there should be children downtown," said Flores, who has a master's degree in early childhood education. Demand is high for the well-regarded center, which currently has a two year-waiting list of preschoolers (among them U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett's granddaughter).
But the threat to Las Manitas is the three-alarm enchilada. Since 1981, the restaurant has earned a special place in Austin's heart. At breakfast and lunch, the long, narrow storefront space is continually a-babble with conversing politicos and lawyers, wheeler-dealers, environmental leaders, creative types, UT students, and ordinary folk. Part of the "Austintatious" fun is spotting celebs like James and Larry McMurtry, Sam Shepard, Owen Wilson, David Byrne, and black-clad touring musicians ("The unofficial hangover outpost of most SXSW attendees," according to the festival's interactive blog).
"Losing Las Manitas is the greatest threat to my enjoyment of Austin that I can possibly imagine," said Texas Monthly Editor Evan Smith, who eats-and-meets at the restaurant almost daily. (It's a "Mas Manitas" day when he stays through both breakfast and lunch.) "I've lost sleep over it! Just to keep me out of their hair, they better keep this place open! Closing Las Manitas would be a terrible blight on the culture of the city."
A Chance to Get It Right
There's still plenty of time to get creative in finding solutions for the block, its buildings, and its tenants. The process of getting the city variances required to build taller than CBD zoning code currently allows, and to complete a project design, could take a year or more. "I've talked to the owner a couple of times, and to my knowledge there's not an inked deal," said Charlie Betts of the Downtown Austin Alliance.
As a downtown development case study, what Austin has here is a chance to get it right. If Austinites can come together to forge a creative, collaborative solution for this high-profile block and there's no reason why we can't, barring unanticipated intransigence among the various stakeholders then we'll have one cool model for next-era development. For growing into a "world-class city" while preserving our own unique laid-back character. And for moving beyond development vs. preservation gridlock.
On behalf of the mayor's office, Downtown Principal Planner Michael Knox has said, "We will ask the developer to consider putting the new buildings next to and behind the small buildings that Las Manitas and the other small businesses are in." (See "Dear Mayor Wynn," left.) Architecturally speaking, it would be a challenge and expensive but certainly possible to incorporate the historic buildings into a new project of a much larger scale.
Each tenant is looking at options. All would love to stay where they are, but all are planning for the likelihood of a move. One possibility would be to come in as ground-floor retail tenants for the new project, if the space were made affordable. Said a knowledgeable Austin developer, "I can't imagine a single user that wouldn't want to have them."
At Tesoros, the contingency plan is to move the retail store to the company's wholesale location at 506 Baylor, near the Whit Hanks West End retail complex. But Tesoros wholesale manager Adrian Gutierrez (who has two children enrolled in Escuelita) said he would miss the sense of community among businesses on the block. Much of the foot traffic at the global arts-and-crafts store comes from locals, tourists, and conventioneers who make a Tex-Mex pilgrimage to Las Manitas, then stop by Tesoros. "We would definitely consider a chance to stay downtown, but whether or not the timing could work, who knows?" said Gutierrez. "We have to accept the change that happens."
At the child-care center, parents have begun to energetically seek positive solutions. A leader of the group is Jim Walker, who is putting to use his experience crafting collaborative civic compromises over the past 11 years as a neighborhood representative for the Mueller Airport redevelopment project. In addition to Walker and his wife, Scheleen, the parent-teacher committee includes Hector and Lydia Ortiz (a former city Planning Commission member) and former City Council member Raul Alvarez and his wife, Theresa. Other Escuelita parents include Alejandro Escovedo and the producer and drummer for his band.
Walker reports that their committee is "actively engaged in examining a number of alternate scenarios for the future of Escuelita." That includes looking into the economics of relocating downtown, and whether affordable space could be obtained. Escuelita hopes to stay in its building at least through August 2007 to give the children and their families a full school year.
As for Las Manitas, the best option may be to move into the historic building that currently houses La Peña. The Pérez sisters have consulted with architect and longtime regular Robert F. Smith to determine whether a move would be economically feasible. As he eats freshly made corn tortillas sprinkled with salt ("Ninety percent of people don't know how sublime these are eaten hot"), Smith envisions a nearly exact re-creation of Las Manitas I, brought to life in the La Peña building as Las Manitas II. The project would involve gutting the building and adding a second dining room or restaurant upstairs. Smith even envisions restoring the original balcony, which extended over the sidewalk on Third Street, as an outdoor dining area. But Cynthia says, "At this point, all I know is that it's going to cost a whole lot, and I don't know if we can afford it. I'm hopeful, but I'm skeptical."
Bob Wynn, a co-founder of Colliers Oxford Commercial and a Las Manitas patron for 21 years, points to parallels with Taco Xpress, the funky neighborhood eatery run by Maria Corbalan. In order to win support from the neighborhood and City Council to develop its South Lamar site as a new Walgreens, developer David Darr agreed to set aside land (to be owned by Corbalan) for a new Taco Xpress. Rather than putting the humble taqueria out of business, the deal has allowed it to triple in size.
Wynn is optimistic that Austinites can mobilize to work out a similar accommodation in this situation: "You'd be hard-pressed to find a place that stirs more emotion than Las Manitas."
Ultimately, of course, the chips are in the hands of the landowner and developer. Friends of the Finley family describe them as a very private, but willing to sit down and work things out. One business associate said, "This is an opportunity ripe for compromise. Unless you get a polarized situation, where someone files with the Landmark Commission to have it zoned historic, over the Finleys' wishes."
"If we can get people to start imagining what the win-win-wins can be, then we can have a productive dialogue," said Walker. "We all have to think about it a little harder. And we have to be willing to talk to one another."