Sustainable Downtown Development in Georgetown, Texas

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What do you get when you combine entrepreneurial spirit and great business acumen with an innate understanding of local food systems and green building technology?

In Georgetown, Texas, you get sustainable urban development on a city block of land, a stone’s throw off the historic downtown square.

Business partners Rusty Winkstern and Clark Lyda have blended their talents, skills, philosophy, and life experience in the design and construction of this innovative project. Thus far, the development includes an outsized Texas roadside eatery called the Monument Café, which serves food made with farm-fresh ingredients, and the Monument Market, which sells locally sourced seasonal produce and meats. A quarter-acre garden plot for growing vegetables, fruits, and herbs nestles by the café and the market, and future plans for the site include development of a two-story office building. From design and construction of the buildings housing the café and urban market to all aspects of food preparation, service, and delivery, this development incorporates the use of every imaginable form of sustainable building technology and business principles.

Down the Green Road

How did Rusty, a transplanted New York farm boy, and Clark, a real estate developer from Austin, end up going down the green road together? Rusty’s love of agriculture and cooking were part of his makeup from early days. At 22, he opened a Mexican restaurant in Austin, Texas, and a few years later moved on from that enterprise and established a seafood restaurant just outside of Austin. Rusty then returned to downtown Austin where he opened a luncheonette close to the state’s Capitol Building. Since it was a short walk from his office, Clark often grabbed lunch at Rusty’s place. Customer and proprietor became friends as they bonded over their common love of good food.

It wasn’t long before they saw the advantages of melding Clark’s business acumen and design sensibilities with Rusty’s farm experience, affinity for cooking, and knowledge of day-to-day restaurant operations. In 1995, they combined their talents and built the Monument Café on the outskirts of Georgetown’s downtown district. The 2,900-square-foot café building was equipped to seat 125 people.

From the day Rusty began cooking for a few guests eager to sample the food at the town’s newest restaurant, a constant stream of diners flowed to the café. It wasn’t too long, however, before the deluge of customers, the building’s limited seating capacity, and the confined kitchen quarters caused Rusty and Clark to consider moving to another location where they could expand the café facilities.

But there were other reasons for relocating. Through the years of running the café, Rusty and Clark were constantly innovating, creating new ways to prepare food and adding menu choices made with the freshest seasonal ingredients, much of it organically grown and purchased from local farmers. Preparing food for their café customers and for their large catering operation was stretching the seams of the small building.

The two were also becoming more and more engaged in, and enthralled by, the concepts of the green movement and sustainable development. By 2007, the café was selling $1,000 per square foot of space — a great return on investment. But these were two guys who had bigger plans for their and downtown Georgetown’s future.

As Rusty explains it, their dream was to create a large sustainable development that would represent a new paradigm for Georgetown — a business enterprise that would be healthy and comfortable for its occupants; economical to operate; and built to conserve resources and minimize toxic materials and waste in its design, construction, landscaping, and operation. Constructing an urban development complex where they could more fully embody their food service philosophy and principles of
sustainable development became their mission.

In 2007, Rusty and Clark acquired a property consisting of a full city block just off the downtown square, where a Ford dealership had been located. When it moved, three auto-oriented structures were vacated and remained on the parcel: the dealership sales office, a service garage, and a small storage building.

Clark, calling on his innate design abilities, created a plan to adaptively reuse the sales building as the new Monument Café and to use all of the latest green building principles in the retrofit. But, partway into design of the project, the partners discovered that the existing structure’s load-bearing walls would not hold the weight of the green roof system or mechanical equipment planned for installation on the roof. Instead, they decided to raze the building — salvaging and recycling most of the resulting debris — and to construct the restaurant on the slab foundation of the old dealership building. By November 2008, the new 6,600-square-foot Monument Café, which had the capacity to seat 225 people, opened its doors.

A Clear Vision

Clark says that when they decided to relocate the café, they wanted the new building to exemplify the longstanding commitment they had to their employees, their customers and the larger Georgetown community. They also wanted to express their principles of local and sustainable agriculture as well as environmental and corporate responsibilities in a tangible way. Throughout the process, Rusty says that their goals for the development have been to ensure the safety and comfort of their employees and customers; to demonstrate and honor the processes by which the staff prepped, cooked, sold, and recycled the café’s food products; and to reinforce the café’s function as a source of fresh and healthy food and as a community gathering place.

A central site in the kitchen area that Clark and Rusty have dubbed the “commissary” is one of the features that demonstrates and honors the café’s processes for preparing, cooking, and serving food. It is in the commissary that ingredients are stored and where cooks prepare menu items for café customers, make food for catering jobs, and package delicacies for sale in the café or at other locations. All aspects of food preparation and service are visible to the public through the use of large glass partitions that separate the dining side of the café from the kitchen and commissary. A customer, on entering the café, can see clear through─from the front to the back of the establishment.

Rusty says that by making the production processes of the café transparent they are celebrating all of the aspects of food service. In this way, they hope to educate children and adults about the source, preparation, and importance of non-processed food products. Customers can easily observe food prepared with as many fresh, local, and organic ingredients as possible. That includes the jellies, breads, pastries, soups, salad dressing, custard ice cream, and sauces that are served.

To fulfill their broader vision of sustainability, Rusty and Clark decided that after completing the café building, they would expand the site development to include a farm garden area and the adaptive reuse of the 10,000-square-foot auto service garage as an urban market. The retrofitted garage building retains its industrial look, but incorporates the same sustainable building design principles used for the café.

The Monument Market is open seven days a week. Rusty describes it as a hybrid of a grocery store and farmer’s market. Food products prepared at the café commissary — such as jellies, pastries, and soups — and fresh produce grown in the garden on the development site are sold at the market. The market also carries organic fruits, vegetables, meats, and dairy products purchased from local farmers as well as locally sourced non-food products, such as hand-made soaps. Eventual plans for the market building include addition of a second story, which will house offices for staff as well as provide office space for lease. Clark says that when that upper story is added, a green roof system will be installed.

Sustainable Development

In all of the construction that has evolved on the site, Rusty and Clark have integrated established and new sustainable technologies so that they reinforce and support each other to achieve the maximum benefit. As already mentioned, one of their original goals was to adapt and reuse two of the existing structures on the property so they could make use of the material and economic resources contained in them. When it was found that most of the dealership’s sales building had to be removed, it was done through a process of deconstruction rather than demolition. As a result, they were able to recycle 90 percent of the resulting debris.

Following the same sustainability philosophy, all materials used in constructing the Monument Café were either recycled and/or locally sourced building materials. Any new materials used were chosen because they could be recycled at the end of the building’s life. For instance, the ‘skin’ of the café building is cement stucco rather than dryvit, because stucco can be recycled at the end of the building’s life span or if there is need to remove it. Also, all of the building’s finishes, including doors, windows, and trim, are made of wood which has a long life span and can be recycled. Even the wood finish applied to the surfaces of those doors, windows, and trim was an environmentally friendly, oil-based finish that stains, seals, and protects the surfaces.

In the building cavities, Clark says that a LEED-certified spray-on foam was used to seal and insulate the structure. Besides being super-efficient at saving energy use, there is no ‘off-gassing’ when the foam is applied, he says, making it a safer product for people and the environment.

A containerized green roof was installed on the café building. It serves many purposes: it creates a home for some lovely plants which, in turn, camouflage mechanical systems on the roof; reduces runoff; acts as an insulating agent; and serves as a habitat for birds. When it rains, the water on the roof is harvested and stored in cisterns that can be incorporated in the heating and cooling system and then used for irrigation needs.

Rusty is very proud of the sustainable food system practices that have been built into the café’s food preparation and cooking processes. He can wax eloquently on the way the Eco-Arch AVTEC commercial hood venting system for cooking and frying works. According to Rusty, the Monument Café is the first restaurant in the country to utilize this island hood-design system and he couldn’t be more pleased with the results. The cooking ventilation system is extremely efficient and uses 75 percent less energy in the process.

There was even “green” thought given to the floor cleaning system purchased for the café. Rusty says that the floor cleaning machine that is used to keep the café spic and span uses only water and no chemicals. It is run through an electrolyzed water system, so floors and other soiled surfaces can be cleaned with tap water only.

Another energy-saving device that Rusty extols is the louver air conditioning system that pulls in cool air from the outside when the louvers are open. It employs thermal venting and cross-ventilation, thus reducing the need for the air conditioning system to kick in. When it is very hot outside, the louvers close automatically—returning the HVAC system to a conventional mode.

Clark is equally proud of the daylight harvesting system they have installed, which produces additional energy savings by reducing the need for electric lighting. The café walls are lined with many windows, all of which provide passive light from sunlight during the day. There are sensors in the ceiling that are cued to the amount of daylight coming in the windows, causing electric lights to dim whenever passive sunlight streams through. On very hot days, when too much sun coming in through the large windows might cause the air conditioning system to come on, louvers on the windows automatically shut and keep the sun’s heat from entering the building.

An Energy-efficient Environment

Exterior landscaping on the Monument site is also planned around green principles. Clark designed a shared parking arrangement that serves all of the activities going on at the site. Pervious concrete/asphalt was used to pave the parking area, which meets development demand and maintains the desired urban character of the project. A permeable paving system reduces heat and runoff, improves water quality, and gives urban trees the root space they need to grow to full size. In another landscaping feature, the use of native plants and water gardens acts to passively heat and cool the site, thereby minimizing the urban heat island effect and creating livable outdoor areas.

One major energy-saving and environmentally sustainable system that hasn’t yet been installed on the Monument site, but which Rusty and Clark talk about longingly, is a state-of-the art automated thermophilic composting unit that converts all types of biodegradable waste into useable mulch. Clark says that the system would take cardboard, paper, some plastic, wood, and all of the food waste—including meat, fish, and dairy. If they had such a unit on site, it would eliminate the need to send garbage to landfills. All of the bacteria would be killed in the composting process and the resulting residue would be mulch that can be used on gardens and in landscaping. This composting unit carries a very high price tag. But with all of the other sustainable technology that has been integrated into the development, it seems likely that such a system will find a home on the site in the not-too-distant future.

Green Principles: A Profitable Pursuit

In the meantime, Rusty and Clark have started a totally new project that will extend their restaurant development and sustainability reach in Georgetown. They have just broken ground on the construction of a new building that will house a Mexican restaurant on a site about six blocks north of the downtown square. The design and build-out of the new restaurant and its surrounding landscape will incorporate many of the green practices and sustainable building technologies that have been used at the Monument Café. The restaurant structure will be built on a large parcel of land that has a view of the San Gabriel River, creating opportunities to integrate garden and other landscaped areas, including a courtyard and outdoor dining pavilion, into the design plan.

Rusty says the menu for the new restaurant will not be “Tex Mex,” but that “Interior Mexican” food will be served. All of the ingredients for the menu items will be locally grown or sourced, will be organic whenever possible, and will vary as the seasons change. None of the food served will be pre-packaged, and the menu will include a variety of fresh seafood and meats that are traditional Mexican cuisine. Much of the food that will be served at the Mexican restaurant will be prepped and cooked within the café’s commissary, and the farm-to-table concept that has served the Monument Café so well will be embraced in the new restaurant.

In recounting their sustainable development journey, Clark says that he and Rusty have always tried to incorporate good business practices and principles their projects by designing buildings that are “permanent” structures with long lives. Although those buildings cost significantly more initially than conventional structures, says Clark, they pay back with increased rents, lower maintenance and operation costs, and higher resale values. Clark believes that their business practices also demonstrate how people and businesses can easily incorporate sustainability into their daily lives.

It would appear that Rusty and Clark’s sustainable business practices are paying off in both customer and employee dividends. Last year, the wait staff served 400,000 meals at the Monument Café. That is apart from all of the catering business they do. And, at last count, the Monument Café Group partnership employed more than a hundred people who are working to maintain the sustainable development. Some of those employees have been part of the café team for years and have reached their 10 and 15 year anniversaries. Rusty and Clark make sure they recognize their employees’ years of service by including that information on the name plates they wear on their uniforms.

Building Sustainable Partnerships

Rusty is very appreciative of the support he and Clark have received from the community as the two have moved from one green project to another. “Georgetown is a great place for our business,” he says. “The concept has been well received here. And everything has seemed to fall into place since we arrived. We believe in Georgetown and in the downtown district. We particularly want to get more people onto the square.”

Rusty is excited about teaching adults and children about the social, economic, and health benefits that come from eating locally sourced food and appreciating fresh produce when it is in season. As he says, “We want people to celebrate this community, its local assets, and the seasonality of food.”

Main Street Georgetown Program Director Shelly Hargrove can’t say enough positive things about what the two entrepreneurs mean to the community. “These are the types of projects that you dream about,” Shelly says. “Rusty and Clark have such a great vision — they’re developing sustainable businesses that are becoming destination businesses for downtown. We are seeing so many people who are visiting downtown Georgetown for the first time because of the Monument Café. And for a small town, the type of sustainable urban development they are doing is huge and sets such a great example for other business owners and property developers. Rusty and Clark have set the bar so high. Everything they have done is of the highest quality and that high quality is what we always try to do in downtown Georgetown. To get even one of these businesses in our town is amazing but now, along with the Monument Café and the Monument Market, we will soon have the Mexican restaurant.”

Rusty’s commitment to the community and the downtown goes beyond his work on sustainable development projects, says Shelly. He has also served on the Georgetown Main Street Board and as the chair of the economic restructuring committee. He believes in, and knows firsthand, what makes a downtown viable, she says.

Shelly also attributes a good portion of the success of Rusty and Clark’s projects to the completion of the Downtown Master Plan in 2003. Shelly says the community vision expressed in that plan sparked the interest of several business owners and property developers. Soon after the plan was completed, a downtown residential townhouse project was built. She believes that Rusty and Clark were encouraged in their pursuits by the master plan, which outlined exactly what the city and the community were looking for in new development projects.

As developers become interested in creating new projects, Shelly says the Main Street Georgetown program works with the city to establish incentives that fit the needs of each new development. In the case of Rusty and Clark’s sustainable urban development, the city upgraded sidewalks, buried utility lines, provided historic lighting and trash receptacles, and made other streetscape improvements. As Shelly says, “It’s a real partnership between the private developer and the city.”

It appears that the Mexican restaurant development will also reap the benefits of that strong public-private partnership. Shelly says that the site of the new restaurant overlooks San Gabriel Park, which fronts on the river and already has a trail system leading from the park into the downtown district. The city plans to expand on pedestrian options between the Mexican restaurant and the downtown square by improving all of the sidewalks and adding other streetscape amenities between the two locations. People will be able to visit downtown Georgetown, leave their cars parked there, and walk six blocks to enjoy Mexican food or enter the San Gabriel Park to use its trail system. Thus, the community is developing a new “green” feature that will capitalize on another destination business created by the sustainability team of Rusty Winkstern and Clark Lyda. As Shelly says, “These are the types of guys you want to duplicate and triplicate. They really ‘get’ downtown.”