You might have heard by now that efforts by the City of Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department to secure a permit allowing the new operators of the recently-renovated Zilker Cafe concessions stand to sell beer and wine in the area of Barton Springs Pool aren’t going so well. As advocates for fully enjoying the public realm, this comes as a surprise to us — we would have made a firmer, less flippant stand for the passage of the permit had we known there would be any major obstacles to the idea from either the public or members of the city’s Parks Board itself:
Add the prospect of alcohol to the mix and things can go haywire. In this case, it was the proposal to sell wine and beer in such close proximity to Barton Springs Pool – which many people consider sacred ground – that prompted environmental groups and regular patrons of the pool to mobilize forces to oppose the application. The Austin Sierra Club, Save Our Springs Alliance and Save Barton Creek Association all organized email opposition campaigns.
The plan would allow the Zilker Cafe’s new operators Springfed, LLC to sell beer and wine that can only be legally consumed within a small area around the cafe that is entirely outside the gates of Barton Springs Pool proper, with no direct access between the pool and concessions stand — but to opponents there’s the possibility of a hypothetically dense individual having “a drink or two,” entering the pool area, and drowning due to the very real dangers of mixing alcohol and aquatic activity.
What’s frustrating about this argument isn’t simply that a massive population arrives at the pool every day hotter than 80 degrees with an exponentially more potent cargo of illicit booze already — with no tremendous body count or corrupted youth in sight — but that the beer and wine offerings of a concessions stand run by one of Austin’s premiere upscale farm-to-table restaurant groups with extensive experience serving alcohol responsibly would significantly change this environment. I mean, please look at the proposed Springfed menu seen below and tell me if you feel a sudden urge to shotgun that can of red wine, which its creators at Infinite Monkey Theorem describe as a “Cab Sauv Syrah blend that is both deeply rich and freshly delightful:”
As pointed out by the two members of the Parks Board that saw no insurmountable issue with the plan, the beer and wine offerings as proposed here would bring the Zilker Cafe in line with similar city-owned operations including Alta’s Cafe at the Waller Creek Boathouse, steps from an active kayak and paddleboard rental operation — boating while intoxicated is considered as risky as swimming, after all. If we’re really so worried about the City of Austin’s duty of care when selling alcohol in public spaces adjacent to potential sources of danger, we should also stop allowing vendors to sell alcohol at the city’s public golf courses, since the only thing separating visitors from operating a golf cart under the influence is a mere $15 rental fee.
Enemies of joy wield “concern” so convincingly it’s often difficult to tease apart the good faith from the bad, but when you look at the groups that organized public resistance campaigns to the Zilker Cafe permit — Austin Sierra Club, Save Our Springs, Save Barton Creek — you’ll notice they’re all old-school environmental groups largely populated by white, well-off homeowners. Why are these folks so bothered by this, you wonder? You might find the answer in the suspicious number of public comments submitted at the permit proposal’s first community engagement meeting held last week that make no mention of safe swimming, but rather that selling beer and wine might make the area too appealing:
“Barton Springs and Zilker Park are already very popular destinations. They get quite crowded, and parking is at a premium. Why does PARD want the cafe to be an additional destination rather than a service to people who are there primarily to enjoy the natural resources?”
“What will be done to prevent parking spaces from being used by diners/drinkers at Spring Fed from taking up scarce parking resources at BSP?”
“And, it didn’t seem that the park has any problem being a destination. Why the need to sell alcohol to promote more visitors?”
“We don’t need more pool visitors at 1 million a year now.”
“I never saw the cafe as a “destination” in my twelve of going to the pool. there is already a massive problem with parking at the pool and this will only be excerbated by serving drinks”
This is a sort of Cliff’s Notes version of the longstanding and utterly failed historic Austinite perspective that “if we don’t build it, they won’t come” — in this case, the notion that adding amenities to the city’s most famous park will somehow tip the facility over the edge into a caricature of lawlessness, an amusing notion considering beer and wine sold here would be considerably less powerful, many times more expensive, and far more closely regulated than the harder stuff brought in already.
SpringFed, the local hospitality group that was awarded the City Council-approved contract in 2019, is led by Rick Garrett and popular Austin chef and restaurateur Shawn Cirkiel. The pair presented two different messages to the board. Cirkiel touched on the enhanced menu selections that include healthy vegetarian and vegan food options, all locally sourced, with compostable service ware.
Garrett told the board, “Many of the comments (opposed to alcohol) are based on fear.” He said he and Cirkiel run or are in partnerships with 16 food and beverage sites throughout the city, including at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, where they hold a city contract to operate eating establishments in the new terminal. “We made this concept and we created this concept specifically for Barton Springs Pool,” he said, adding that he and Cirkiel have a proven record of selling beer and wine responsibly.
If anything, the Springfed cafe would bring a touch of class to the notion of drinking at Zilker, but even if all safety concerns related to the nearby pool were met, in the minds of its opponents there’s the simple problem of having to share limited space with other people, an issue we have to treat extremely seriously for some reason during every stage of the city’s development. Isn’t it odd that the people who never miss the opportunity to tell you how fun Austin was before you got here are usually the same ones doing everything they can to prevent you from having any of that fun yourself?
In any case, it appears that barring a miracle this proposal is, uh, dead in the water — which will come as great relief to anyone who might want Austin to avoid the horrors of alcohol sales at public swimming facilities like the poolside beer garden at Hoyt Park in the lawless wasteland of Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, the beer and wine vendors at countless public lidos in Europe including Berlin’s Strandbad Wannsee, or the alcoholic beverages enjoyed on a concessions deck overlooking the eerily familiar spring-fed pool at Wekiwa Springs State Park in Florida.
Since it looks likely we’ll dodge the predicted misfortune (and revenue) of operations such as these that treat adults like adults, here’s a modest proposal. If the permit for Springfed fails, we would encourage our readers to engage with the public comment portion of the Zilker Vision Plan to demand a Munich-style public beer garden located somewhere in the park, preferably thousands of feet from danger at Barton Springs — then we’ll get to see who cares about swimming under the influence and who cares about making things around here too popular.