Point Austin: Tough Tacos

The debate over Las Manitas is about much more than dollars and centavos

Point Austin
Nothing upsets an Austin liberal more than a Yankee carpetbagger's desire to bulldoze his enchiladas verdes.

At least that's the local impression this week, as Marriott International CEO J. Willard Marriott, in town for yet another hotel ribbon-cutting, told local reporters, "Why should you hold up a several hundred million dollar investment because of a small little restaurant? The restaurant can relocate and should relocate." If you've been chilling over a mojito in Marfa for the last month and somehow missed the news, the "small, little restaurant" Mr. Mega Bucks so condescendingly dismissed is none other than Las Manitas (aka "the Avenue Cafe"), a Congress Avenue and Austin cultural landmark since 1981. The Marriott chain, via landowners the Finley Co. and Indiana-based operators White Lodging Services Corp., plans to evict Las Manitas and plop three nondescript but massive convention hotels on the site, the northeast corner of Second and Congress.

In Chamber of Commerce circles, this is what is known as progress.

Before J. Willard came to town, the landlord and White had been making conciliatory noises about coming to an accommodation with restaurant owners Cynthia and Lidia Pérez and their neighbors, Tesoros Trading Co. and the Escuelita del Alma day care center (a Las Manitas project). Now that Marriott's put his big foot in it – he added that the sisters own the La Peña building up the street – tempers are rising again, and Cynthia pointedly told the Statesman, "He's got 16 locations in Austin already. How many does he need?"

Apparently, somebody in the home office has since yanked the octogenarian tycoon's chain, because this week he apologized, deferentially reminding the sisters that eons ago, the Marriott had once been a small restaurant "well known in Washington, just like Las Manitas in Austin." It's a reasonable guess that Cynthia and Lidia are not gazing longingly into the future, hoping Las Manitas will grow up one day to be a faceless but extremely lucrative hotel chain, too.

Where Do We Want to Live?

Cynthia's judgment of relative community value was reiterated Tuesday night at Mexic-Arte by Liveable City board member Jim Walker, as he presented the Las Manitas folks with one of the organization's 2006 "Civic Spirit" awards, noting that Oct. 18 will be the restaurant's 25th anniversary. "Las Manitas exemplifies what we mean by 'civic spirit,'" Walker said, "and provides a complete cross section of Austin – whichever way you want to cut it – every morning over breakfast. It's a place of community, a gathering place for talking about us, and now it's the latest front for Austin in determining how we answer this question: What kind of a place do we want Austin to be?

"I do know this," Walker continued. "What Las Manitas has given to Austin over the last 25 years is worth much, much more than $100 million."

As inspiring as it may be, on its face that equation is unlikely to sound persuasive to the folks at the Finley Co., who have already signed a 99-year lease with White and indirectly Marriott. Las Manitas' lease runs out Dec. 31, but the landlord has offered to extend through next August. Almost lost in the shuffle is Escuelita, an innovative, bilingual day care center unique to Downtown and a direct spin-off of the restaurant – and even more precarious to the whims of hoteliers. Thus far, with the clock ticking, it's a standoff.

Preserving the Icons

Last week the sisters hired Mayor Emeritus Gus Garcia to lobby their cause at the city, and Mayor Wynn and council members are definitely aware that the community is hoping for some official intervention. Wynn has been talking to all the parties, and says there are "six or seven" possible solutions, although it's too soon to say how it might turn out. He said his past experience at downtown preservation has been useful but that the most commonly mentioned solution – that the restaurant move to La Peña – creates historic landmark issues of its own. I spoke to several members this week, and while they're all verbally supportive of working out a compromise, several also offered a cautious subtext that essentially runs, "We're not certain we have a legal ground for action."

Garcia snorted. "'Legal grounds' is just bullshit. The City Council exists to find ways to do things in the city that need to be done. When I was mayor [2001-2003], then Council Member Wynn served on a task force to determine how best to bring Austin out of the post-9/11 slump. A central principle of that effort is that we need to preserve our unique community culture, to 'keep Austin weird.' People want to come here because of the unique culture, and Las Manitas is a central, historic part of that."

Wynn insists he remembers. He said his immediate goal is to keep the atmosphere calm enough to work out a deal and that Marriott's comments were "not helpful" in that regard. "I'm working hard on it," Wynn said, "because Las Manitas is an iconic piece of the culture and history of the city [and is] characteristic of our urban fabric." He noted that the lease of Antone's nightclub is reportedly also about to expire, and, "We've got to find a way to maintain these iconic businesses that may not be tied to a particular historic building."

The term "icon" came up a lot in those conversations with officials. Astute "Naked City" readers will notice that the possibility of "iconic landmarks" was formally raised at the Historic Landmark Commission this week, although it's very unclear whether such a designation could be in place soon enough to help Las Manitas – and the landowners might well consider such an attempt a declaration of war.

But you don't have to be a Las Manitas customer, or even like migas, to realize that this debate is broader and more profound than just another business relocation. City officials, and indeed the community at large, are being asked to consider what we fundamentally value as citizens of Austin, and whether the bottom line – the multimillion-dollar real estate deal – is all that matters to the future of this city.

You might want to let the folks down at City Hall know where you come down on that question. end story

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redevelopment, urban planning, Las Manitas, J. William Marriott, Gus Garcia, Jim Walker

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