What Happened to Las Manitas?

(nikkorsnapper/flickr)

The story of Las Manitas displacement from its 26-year-old home on Congress Avenue has become an infamous symbol of Austin’s millennial transformations. Long known as one of Austin’s best diners—an institution where construction workers, local celebrities and regulars rubbed shoulders, and where you had to walk through the bustling kitchen to get to the patio—Las Manitas was for many an embodiment of Austin’s soul, and the city was on the verge of losing it.

Were these the hyperbolic claims of people clinging to an impossibly nostalgic vision of the city? If they had their way, it was argued, the city’s ‘soul’ would anyhow fall to stagnation rather than change.

Back in 2006, Tim Finley, the owner of the building where Las Manitas had been for the better part of three decades, came to an agreement with White Lodging Services Corp., the owners and operators of the Marriot Hotel chain, to convert the lot into a hotel complex which would house approximately a thousand rooms and would be used for the growing demands of tourists coming to Austin for conventions. The $275 million project was projected to create hundreds of jobs and bring millions in annual revenue to the city.

New Downtown Austin Marriott on Congress Avenue

Here was the irony of a city faced with the task of bulldozing an iconic restaurant to make room for a hotel, which in turn was intended for tourists coming to Austin to experience a unique and iconic ambiance. It was a classic Catch-22.

Following a wave of popular anger over the predicament, the City Council elected to offer a generous, low-interest loan of $750, 000 dollars to the owners of Las Manitas to help them relocate. Even as popular opinion and fortune seemed to offer a new chance, the owners demurred, claiming that the loan had too many strings attached. They would rebuild on their own terms.

At the end of August 2008, the doors of Las Manitas closed. A year and a half later, they show no signs of reopening, despite the fact that the restaurant’s owners already own a space down the block at 3rd and Congress Ave.

Curious to find out what had happened, I called Las Manitas number, (still listed on the Save Las Manitas website) to ask about the status of the restaurant. Surprisingly, a man a picked up the phone. “Yes,” he answered, they were still planning to reopen, but they had no idea when. From the evasive tone in his voice, I gathered that the plan had become more of an obligation than the rallying cry that it had been a year before.

Meanwhile, half a year after Las Manitas closed, Deno Yiankes, president and chief operating officer of investments and development for White Lodging Development Corp, reported that the company had decided to put the project on hold citing the economic downturn. The hotel, once expected to become the city’s gaudy consolation prize, now seems like a distant hope.

In the meantime, the simple but charming little buildings that had housed a trade store, a school and a beloved restaurant have been demolished. In their place now stands yet another surface-level parking lot.

What is the moral of this story? Should sentimentality have triumphed over progress? Or was it sentimentality that robbed progress of its golden opportunity?

It’s hard to say.

One might at least conclude that a surface-level parking lot in the heart of Downtown Austin is a sign of one thing: paralysis.

And if Austin ever does lose its “soul,” it will be because it got stuck between the past and the future.