An Austin Institution Ousted by Development In Austin, a beloved Tex-Mex cafe is preparing to move to make way for a giant new Marriott hotel, and people are plenty upset about it. The controversy has raised anew the question: Is success ruining Austin?
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An Austin Institution Ousted by Development

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An Austin Institution Ousted by Development

An Austin Institution Ousted by Development

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Austin, Texas, a beloved Tex-Mex cafe is prepared to move to make way for a giant new Marriott hotel, and people are mighty upset about it. The city, the restaurant and Marriott have been sparring in public for months. And the controversy has, again, raised the question there: Is success ruining Austin?

NPR's John Burnett reports.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

JOHN BURNETT: On the wall next to the cash register at Las Manitas restaurant is a framed letter signed by J.W. Marriott, Jr.

Dear Cynthia and Lidia, it begins. Please accept my sincere apologies for my insensitive remarks that appeared in last week's Austin American-Statesman. That was a reference to the now locally infamous quote from Mr. Marriott: Why should you hold up a several-hundred-million-dollar investment because of a small little restaurant? He clearly didn't know Austin or the fame of Las Manitas.

Ms. CYNTHIA PEREZ (Co-Owner, Las Manitas Avenue Cafe): (Spanish spoken)

BURNETT: Cynthia Perez, one of two sisters who own the restaurant, gives a tour of her kitchen from which emanates some of the most acclaimed Mexican food in Texas.

Ms. C. PEREZ: She's in the process of burning the chile poblanos so that she can easily peel back the skin, so that she can make the zacatecan sauce.

BURNETT: The narrow, shotgun cafe is popular with politicos, construction workers, guitar players and movie stars alike. The clientele includes Karl Rove and Alberto Gonzalez when they're in town. Cynthia and Lidia Perez.

Ms. C. PEREZ: And people are coming to Austin because it doesn't look like any other city.

Ms. LIDIA PEREZ (Co-Owner, Las Manitas Avenue Cafe): It's the local colors, the diversity and the - you want us to be the opposite of the chain restaurants, and that's what we are.

BURNETT: Last summer, Marriott Corporation announced a hotel complex that would generate 600 jobs and $7 million a year in taxes. The problem is, it would be located on a downtown block of Congress Avenue where Las Manitas now sits. Mayor Will Wynn says it's a project most cities would have drooled over, but Austenites were horrified.

Mayor WILL WYNN (Austin, Texas): As soon as this project was announced, by the way, there was a howl across this community, and I got a thousand e-mails and phone calls and stopped on the street saying, save Las Manitas. Don't let this hotel be built.

BURNETT: Earlier this summer, the city - moved by the outcry - offered the restaurant a special loan of $750,000. But this time, citizens accused city hall of favoritism toward the little cafe when other local businesses were struggling.

Last week, the Perez sisters turned down the loan, saying it had too many conditions. So now the hotel developer and Las Manitas are back at the negotiating table. Las Manitas is only leasing its current property. Plans are for the cafe to move down the block to another building the Perez sisters own. And that's the sticking point. Marriott needs their say-so in order to build on the block.

Lidia and Cynthia Perez estimate they'll need nearly a million dollars to reopen Las Manitas in a new location, and they don't know where that's going to come from. So far, Marriott has offered them $72,000. A local attorney for the hotel developer would not comment on what Marriott's next move would be.

Unidentified Woman: Flauta?

Mr. KEVIN PAPE (Customer, Las Manitas Avenue Cafe): All right.

Unidentified Woman: (unintelligible) rice, (unintelligible) on the side. Enjoy.

BURNETT: Las Manitas regular Kevin Pape - digging into a plate of chicken flautas - says he's sure the restaurant will survive in its eventual new location because of its loyal clientele.

Mr. PAPE: I mean, they have the same people - the same waitresses that just waited on me here, I mean, she waited on me when I first came here in, you know, in 1996. So it's kind of a - it's a real family atmosphere. That's going to be tough to replicate. You know, it's sad to see it go. I don't think we need the hotel here, frankly.

BRUNETT: When the original Las Manitas closes and the hotel complex breaks ground - as most observers believe will happen - old-timers say the city whose unofficial civic motto is Keep Austin Weird will lose a little bit more of its soul.

John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.

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