South Congress Cafe to 86 Deck?

Jury finds restaurant guilty of violating agreement it made with city to bring eatery into compliance with city building and zoning code

The South Congress Cafe, the upscale spin-off of local Tex-Mex chain Trudy's, keeps fighting the law only to see the law keep winning. A municipal court jury found the cafe guilty last week of violating a deferred adjudication agreement it made with the city in February that required proprietors to bring the restaurant into full compliance with city building and zoning code by June. The eatery's troubles began last year when a neighbor reported what appeared to be the unpermitted construction of a new rear patio seating area and fence, which led to a series of citations for failing to secure required permits and site plan approvals. Had owners gone through the proper zoning channels, the city would have informed them that construction is usually discouraged on city sidewalk and right-of-way – where their fence now stands. The cafe holds the unofficial city record for the highest number of consecutive and overall violations of stop-work orders.

If Assistant City Attorney Nancy Matchus has her way in civil district court, owners will have to tear down the entire deck. Matchus said a permit has been approved allowing for the removal of the portion of the deck on city property – among the first steps in coming into compliance. Owners got more tough tortillas recently, however, when the city denied an off-site parking plan they filed. The illegal deck sits atop the former parking area, and the city is demanding that the cafe secure ample parking as part of its code compliance.

Matchus joked about how the recalcitrant restaurant's legal team at last hearing cost it $2,400 in fees when the maximum fine they could have received there was $2,000. The jury fined owners only $1, but Matchus hopes to collect attorney's fees as well.

Part of the cafe's defense dream team was Richard Suttle, the Cadillac of Austin zoning lawyers. "They whupped us," he said of the recent court appearance. He said cafe management will remove the construction in the right-of-way. Hinting that the restaurant may have received a little unfair treatment, he cited a city code exemption for decks under 5,000 square feet and said that since the neighborhood is all over the cafe, "The city's all over my guys."

Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association President Kathie Tovo said Tuesday that "the wheels of justice certainly seem to be turning very, very slowly in this case. I doubt any of the South Congress Cafe's nearby residents or neighboring businesses ever anticipated that more than a year and a half later, we'd all still be looking at an illegal deck and fence on that property, or that pedestrians would continue to be blocked from the public right-of-way by those same structures. The South Congress Cafe entered into an agreement with the city to remove the structures if they did not have a valid site plan by early June; it is now long past time for the owners to keep their end of the agreement."

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SoCo Cafe, building and zoning, South Congress Cafe, Trudy's

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