Rainey district residents support proposed rule for new bars
Neighbors say area also needs sidewalks, other safety improvements.
Down on old Rainey Street, unlikely neighbors coexist. High-rise, high-end condos and apartments and 1930s-era bungalows. Single-family residences and trendy bars. Old-timers and younger bar patrons.
A rezoning by the city in 2005 from single-family residential to central business district allowed the bars to open in the downtown Rainey Street District, a small historical enclave off the northern banks of Lady Bird Lake.
Now the city is set to begin work on a proposed amendment to city codes that would make cocktail lounges a conditional use in the district, meaning that each new bar would have to be approved by the Planning Commission, or the City Council on appeal, before it could open.
The city's Planning Commission voted last week to have city staff members draft the proposal, beginning a multistep process that commission Chairman Dave Sullivan said is intended to alert residents that a change is being contemplated.
Sullivan said that as the city was considering its downtown Austin plan, which the City Council approved in December after years of study, officials heard from Rainey Street residents asking for conditional-use permitting for bars as a way to deal with growing parking and traffic problems in the neighborhood.
The city's Planning and Zoning Department will write the proposed code amendment, which, if recommended by a Planning Commission subcommittee, would need approval by the full commission and the City Council before becoming part of the city's land development code.
Bridget Dunlap, who owns three bars on Rainey and plans to open a fourth in May, welcomed the city's review.
"They're just trying to put more rules and conditions so that moving forward we're not as bombarded," Dunlap said, joking that she was "glad I got there when I did."
Making cocktail lounges a conditional use would allow for more thoughtful planning on Rainey Street, Ian Stonington, president of the Rainey Neighbors Association, said in a statement.
Stonington, speaking for the neighbors association, said it is "pro-growth and pro-business" and has a good relationship with the bar owners. But he said an "over-concentration" of cocktail lounges could discourage other business uses that are needed and that could add to the vitality of downtown, such as restaurants, boutiques, a grocery store or a coffee shop.
The 2005 zoning change that ushered in dense development and the opening of condos, bars and restaurants triggered a dramatic transformation of the once-quiet working-class Rainey neighborhood.
Residents have complained for years about the dangers created by pedestrian bar traffic on narrow Rainey Street, which does not have continuous sidewalks.
Stonington said Rainey needs sidewalks, lighting and parking to handle vehicular and pedestrian traffic. "We want this to be a safe neighborhood, and simply stated, it's just not," he said.
"I think everybody recognizes there's a problem in the Rainey district," Sullivan, the Planning Commission chairman, said. "But is it that there are too many bars, or that the infrastructure isn't in place?"
A spokeswoman for the city's Transportation Department said various city departments have met with Rainey Street stakeholders about their requests for improvements and are preparing recommendations for the City Council.
Don Grillo, a member of the neighborhood association's board of directors who has lived at the Towers of Town Lake for more than three years, questioned the impact conditional use could have, considering a number of bars are already open and more residential lots are being developed for businesses on Rainey. Still, he said, adding rules for conditional use is important to produce a mixed environment. But "safety has got to be the highest priority as well," Grillo said.