Emerald City Blues

The parking-lot crisis

There is no yellow-brick road leading to Emerald City Press, the hip walk-up and drive-through coffee shop that opened last March near the corner of Ninth and Lamar – and no yellow-brick parking lot, either. The purveyors of caffeinated beverages, espresso soft-serve, and fresh flowers (among other things) have come to feel they're trapped in an Oz-like world of city zoning bureaucracy, unable to get approval to add seating out back along Shoal Creek, which they say is vital to staying in business. Standing in Emerald City's way is insufficient parking, an affliction shared throughout the area, flanked as it is by scads of retail on one side and Austin Community College on the other.

Parking is a common sticking point as much with new businesses opening in old neighborhoods as it is with residential infill development. Existing businesses have had to fight for scant parking spots and often don't want to share, while vocal neighborhood residents howl about strangers clogging their streets with vehicles. Though the city has relaxed parking rules for denser, more transit-friendly developments and offered discounted requirements in the urban core, until Austin becomes less auto-centric, parking will remain a contentious issue.

Emerald City Press barista Johnny Walker talks shop in a short movie by Daniel Mottola.

A reworked, former drive-through photo lab, Emerald City Press has only seven parking spots. Per city code, to change from a takeout-only business to a restaurant with seating, it would need 40 spaces. Emily Flem­ing-Nash, the cafe's bubbly owner, said earlier this week that an agreement to lease the needed spots from Cheapo Discs across the street was in the works, and that in the meantime, she just needs a temporary variance. But her request for a variance with the city's Board of Adjustment has been held up since July, most recently due to a city snafu over notification of neighboring businesses.

The amount of money the business is losing in the meantime is "scaring the shit out of me," said Fleming-Nash. The city is "putting the burden of solving parking issues on small-business owners," she added, which is "very overwhelming." A native of the nearby Clarks­ville neighborhood and a former staffer at Austin institutions Jo's Hot Coffee, Austin Java, Ranch 616, and the Continental Club, Fleming-Nash said she wanted to open a place that's beneficial to the 'hood, somewhere folks can walk to, with an outdoor cafe and a newsstand with flowers ("because girls love flowers").

That all sounds great to influential Downtown developer Perry Lorenz, but he doesn't believe the city should grant the variance without Emerald City having the off-site parking agreement in hand. He argues that for the city to let her off the hook for some 33 spots would set a "terrible precedent" and "exacerbate a tremendous parking problem." Lorenz said he's opposing the variance request as board president of the West End Austin Alliance, a coalition of nearby neighborhoods and businesses. Emerald City's request also lacks support from any other recognized area organization, he says.

Lorenz – who freely acknowledges that he owns the land occupied by Emerald City neighbor Shoal Creek Saloon (which has also opposed the variance), as well as commercial property across the street housing Castle Hill Plaza and Wink Restaurant – says he's also steamed that on top of the parking predicament, Emerald City is seeking a permit to sell beer and wine. If the coffee shop's booze sales were to exceed that of other beverages and food, it would need even more parking spaces. "There are so many unanswered questions, and so many times [Fleming-Nash] just rounds the truth," he said. But "if she can get the required off-street parking, I'm her new best friend."

The friendship may never get off the ground. Cheapo Discs owner Jason Shields said Wednesday that he had planned to sublease parking to Emerald City, as he has done for Shoal Creek Saloon and neighboring Wildflower boutique. But Shields' landlord, Harrison-Pearson, has since prohibited him from subleasing any parking following a phone call the company received last Thursday from Lorenz, who was inquiring about the proposed sublease.

Susan Walker, a senior planner with the Watershed Protection and Development Review Department, says there's a long list of individuals and businesses signed up on both sides of the issue, though the Board of Adjustment's decision is based on site-specific conditions. Emerald City's case is scheduled to go before the city's Board of Adjustment Monday, Oct. 13.

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Emerald City, Perry Lorenz, Emily Fleming Nash

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