City Council Approves Little Woodrow’s Bar Permit, with Conditions

City Council early Friday morning approved a conditional use permit for the Little Woodrow’s bar at 5425 Burnet Rd, in a 4-3 vote supported by Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, and members Bill Spelman and Mike Martinez.

Council members Laura Morrison, Kathie Tovo and Chris Riley opposed.

Cole offered the motion to approve the permit. The motion included several conditions for operation. Thursday, Friday and Saturday closing hours were set at 1 AM, rather than the 2 AM requested by bar owner Rick Engel. The bar and restaurant will need to provide 52 parking spaces, of which 11 can be leased from adjacent businesses. Several requirements to reduce on-site noise were imposed.

The owner, Rick Engel, said the 4,753 sq ft bar and restaurant is a good fit for the new demographics emerging along Burnet Rd from mixed use development. Adjacent residents argued the venue is less than 200 ft from family-friendly housing, has grossly insufficient parking, and will disrupt neighborhood sleep late at night, like similar venues have done on South Congress. Residents also detailed numerous irregularities in the appellant’s filings and negotiation.

The case has been winding its way through approvals for over a year. Council approved a zoning change to CS-1 last March. Planning Commission in December failed to approve the conditional use permit, which is also needed to run a bar and which can impose conditions on the bar’s operation. The Planning Commission’s non-approval normally constitutes a denial, but Engel and property owner Jimmy Nassour appealed the case to Council. They also obtained a liquor license from the State of Texas, which normally happens after permit approval.

Discussion of the case Thursday night ran nearly three hours. Engel and Nassour spoke in support. About 50 area residents attended in opposition, with 17 people presenting.

Difference of Opinion on “A Very Exciting Place”

Engel in introducing his project emphasized the ideal conditions for a new bar at this part of Burnet. “This section of Burnet Road has become a very exciting place,” Engel said, “one of the more growing and developing neighborhoods in Austin right now.” He said hundreds of neighbors supported the project, which along with the bar included a pizza restaurant welcoming to neighborhood families.

David Mintz, president of the Allandale Neighborhood Association, disputed Engel’s assertion that hundreds of residents supported the bar. “I have not heard from a single neighbor in Allandale who has told me affirmatively that they support this project as it stands,” he said.

Rob Robinson, an Allandale resident, said that residents do not oppose development or even a bar, but the type of bar. He compared the Little Woodrow’s with Billy’s, a small local bar farther down Burnet, and with Little Ginny’s, an old bar right across from the Little Woodrow’s site, both of which are smaller in scale.

Dale Henry, president of Brentwood Neighborhood Association, said the appeal of the site was “location, location, location. This is bad location, bad location, bad location – too near residential homes where people have families, where a late night establishment does not mix well.” Henry said his organization had supported many projects along Lamar and Burnet. “This is not one of them. It’s not about Little Woodrow’s, not about a bar, it’s about this location, this piece of property is wrong for a bar.”

Insufficient Parking

Most of the arguments involved the site’s parking, which neighbors emphasized was grossly insufficient and too close to residential. Staff said the code requires the site to have 41 spaces for the bar and restaurant. Participation in a Car2Go program, announced a few days before the hearing, would reduce the requirement to 31 spaces. However, Engel said the plan would still provide 41 spaces. But even this amount would be insufficient to prevent chronic traffic and parking on nearby residential streets, residents argued.

Joe Reynolds told Council members that few of the spaces on the property were compliant with City code, because they were within 200 ft of residential housing. This included the spaces fronting Burnet Rd.

Reynolds noted that the site plan describes three different uses (bar, restaurant, corporate office) at just the right sizes to avoid triggering more stringent parking, yet the three uses taken together clearly will draw more cars than a small venue would.

Nearby resident Chris Hayden said the site’s 8,000 sq ft of office space in two rear buildings remained an ongoing risk, because the property owner would have a huge financial incentive to try to lease them. Hayden confirmed that the earlier plans showed the two office buildings as storage for parking purposes. He showed a slide of the ad signs seeking tenants for the buildings, which the property owner had pulled earlier that day. “they’ve now pulled it back, but I want to point out this is an example of where they say one thing and do something else.”

Nassour, the owner of the property, confirmed that these buildings had been taken off the market, and would remain storage until additional parking could be arranged.

At Council Member Tovo’s request, staff confirmed that even if one of the office buildings were razed to provide additional parking, that parking would need special permission to be used because the space was within 200 ft of residential.

Don Leighton-Burwell, an architect and representative of the Brentwood Neighborhood Association, said that to meet the parking requirements, the bar would have to provide compact parking spaces, which in practice rarely work well. The appellant’s last minute participation in the Car2Go program to reduce 10 more spaces made the proposal even less workable than the one that Planning Commission considered, and failed to approve. “If this were my client, I would tell them not to take this site,” Leighton-Burwell said.

Engel said a recent change to the plan that reduced the parking on Burnet from 11 pull-in spaces to 4 parallel spaces was a safety requirement from the Transportation Department. He said the plan also lost two spaces in order to implement a request from the neighbors for one-way exit to Burnet on Clay Ave.

Council Member Spelman asked Engel to clarify the maximum occupancy of the bar and restaurant. “I bet there are going to be at least a few of those Saturday nights when it’s standing room only and you end up with more than 93 people in the bar, and you have some people sitting in the restaurant and you end up with 150, maybe 200 people in the bar. Is that conceivable?” Engel said no. “There is no way you are going to get 200 people in this bar.” He said his bar isn’t the type where they pull chairs out to squeeze people in. “It is a place to gather with groups, happy hours, meet your friends, those kinds of things.” He said space was also needed to service tables.

Hours of Operation, Late Night Noise, Leffingwell’s Mom

Several residents, including parents, spoke to their concerns that the bar would disrupt their lives. Jordan Harmse said the likely noise would disrupt sleep for his two five-year-olds. “My wife was seriously talking, saying we would just have to leave that neighborhood.”

Mary Long Geil, who lives across from the site, said the noise from Little Longhorn forced them to build a bedroom in the back of their house for their daughter, and Little Longhorn is on the far side of Burnet. Jackie Doyle, another resident directly across from the site, said she felt even 1 AM would be too late to prevent serious disruptions. “It is worrying a bar can be plunked down on the corner.”

Barbara McArthur, another nearby resident, said Engels operates some of his other bars with expired sound permits. She said neighbors visited another Little Woodrow’s. “We stopped at least 100 ft from a Little Woodrow’s and there was loud noise. And I thought, I could call the police because this is against the sound [ordinance] – but is that a good use of police?”

Cynthia Keohane teased Mayor Leffingwell on his past promise to oppose late night bars. “He said, and this is pretty close to a direct quote, ‘My mother always said that nothing good ever came after midnight.’” This drew laughter, and Leffingwell said the quote was actually ‘after 10:00 PM’. “I like your mom even more, thank you,” Keohane responded.

Mintz said no businesses along this part of Burnet currently operate past 1 AM.

Engel told Council members he had hoped to get 2:00 AM hours, but would accept 1:00 AM hours if necessary.

Residents Say Little Woodrow’s Manipulated Process

Speakers in opposition to the bar hammered a number of examples where they felt the Little Woodrow’s appellants had manipulated process.

Bill Spiesman accused the appellants of misrepresenting facts on their appeal. He disputed the appeal’s assertion that parking met code, saying that only 3 parking spaces were compliant, because most parking was too close to residential.

Spiesman said the appellants had not in fact made a serious effort to work with the neighborhoods, except when prompted by staff.

Allandale’s Mintz said Engel had not reached out to Allandale until the association invited him, and had agreed to meet only a few times after that.

Joan Bates, a former deputy general council for the Texas Alcohol and Beverages Commission, said that the TABC had issued a late night liquor license to the appellant earlier in the month. She said TABC requires the appellant to provide notice to adjacent neighbors, but that only one of the nearby neighbors received notice. She said the TABC application must contain certification from the City clerk that the City allows liquor sales on the site. This would require the issuance of a permit, Bates said. “The applicant had actual knowledge of the lack of his compliance with city code regulations at the time he submitted his application to TABC,” Bates said.

Mayor Pro Tem Cole asked a City attorney to weigh in on Bate’s finding. The attorney said past practice for the clerk’s office was to determine suitability based on zoning, which the site had. The attorney said Bates’ interpretation that a permit was needed first would need to be evaluated.

McArthur said that the appellant had represented the bar as a family-friendly venue. “It turns out they don’t allow children in the bar. It’s a bar. It has no kitchen.” The appellant had also stated that they had an agreement with the adjacent Episcopal ministry for extra parking. “They said that publicly. That wasn’t true.” Then the site was presented as a retail store, “Burnet Bazaar. They attempted to get a site plan exemption for the site, pretending to be a retail store.” She said the appellant applied for a significantly larger CS-1 zoned area than they needed. It was reduced from 8,000 sq ft to around 5,000 sq ft, but not to the 2,487 sq ft that they actually needed.

Engel in responding to the residents expressed frustration that they had characterized him as acting in bad faith. He said he had a strong reputation around town after 25 years in the restaurant business.

Engel noted that he had reached out to the neighborhoods early on, met multiple times, and had addressed their concerns, except closing earlier than 2 AM on weekends. “That was the one thing that I felt strongly about because it does impact my business, giving up that one hour.” He said he finally offered to compromise on this, closing at 1:30 AM. He said he would even accept 1:00 AM, if need be.

He recalled negotiations arranged by Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole at the March 2013 rezoning vote, where adjacent neighbors had agreed on terms. Those terms included a reduction in the CS-1 envelope, agreement on 2 AM weekend hours, and changes to the site plan to reduce risk of traffic and noise to residents on Clay Ave.

He said Brentwood Neighborhood Association agreed to conditions at one point, but withdrew its support on the night of the Planning Commission meeting.

In response to a question from Council Member Morrison, Engel said his attorney had arranged notification for the TABC license to all homes and businesses within 100 ft of the property.

Council Discussion and Motions

Spelman asked staff if there was a test to determine if the bar could meet the conditions of a permit, in particular adequate parking. Staff responded that the only measure of adequate parking was square footage for parking on the site plan.

Spelman then asked if the permit could be modified or revoked if subsequent evidence pointed to customers parking in the neighborhood. Staff said the permit once issued could not be changed significantly.

The appellant offered to guarantee up to 51 off-street parking spaces if needed in the future, as a condition of the permit. Martinez proposed that if some of this parking was off the site, that it be within 500 ft of the property.

Riley asked Brentwood representative Leighton-Burwell if the neighborhood had considered residential permit parking for the area. Leighton-Burwell said this would have to be a requirement. But upon further questioning by Riley, Leighton-Burwell said that regardless of the appellant’s willingness to agree to numerous conditions, the neighborhood would still oppose the project.

Riley agreed. “This is not the site. If these other two buildings were gone and they could park 100 people on their site and have no access to the residential areas and it fronted only on to Burnet Rd – those are the kinds of properties along Burnet Rd that are appropriate for this kind of use.”

Tovo pointed to the mixing of uses – restaurant and bar – to get half the parking that would otherwise be required if there were just one use. Runners from the restaurant would be bringing food to patrons of the bar, who would have access to the patio. She asked why staff wasn’t more concerned that the resulting synergy would draw more cars. Staff said the presence of a wall between the two uses meant that the arrangement met code. Tovo also expressed concern about the proximity to and impact on the residential neighborhood.

Morrison concurred. “Trying to put a square peg in a round hole, or whatever. It just doesn’t feel like it’s going to work.”

Morrison moved to deny the appeal, with Tovo seconding.

Martinez expressed frustration with the residents for identifying parking and hours as the two main objections, and then dismissing those even when they were addressed. “Tonight I hear one of the speakers say it just doesn’t matter – this just doesn’t work.”

Cole then offered the substitute motion to approve, with 52 required parking spaces within 500 ft of the site, 1 AM weekend closing hours, the conditions that were previously negotiated during the CS-1 hearing, as well as conditions on noise agreed to in a meeting with residents and Engel in November.

Cole said she found the case difficult, striking a balance between the needs of residents and the area’s commercialization. “But it’s one of those cases that I feel like we need to move forward.”