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Tie vote means no change to noise rules

Friday, April 23, 2004 by

McCracken vows to try again after Music Commission review

Council Member Brewster McCracken’s efforts to amend the city’s noise ordinance in response to the arrest of members of the band Ozomatli during the South by Southwest Music Festival hit a snag on Thursday. McCracken’s proposed amendment to lift provisions of the ordinance during the annual music festival failed to receive a majority vote from the Council, leaving McCracken pledging to try again after an additional review of the situation by the Austin Music Commission.

McCracken outlined the need for the changes in the ordinance, which would have allowed loud music, either indoors or outdoors, downtown after 2am, and would also have enlarged the area covered by the ordinance. Stages and performance venues downtown during SXSW are at a premium, he argued, leading to tight scheduling with the headlining act at each venue traditionally scheduled to start at 1am. “This is the only time of the year in Austin when virtually every club in the city is running on this tight, one-hour-per-band schedule, from 8pm in the evening until 2am,” he said, gesturing to a giant blow-up of one club’s SXSW schedule from this year. “What happened with Ozomatli was that one band ran behind by ten minutes . . . then the next band ran late . . . and they did not take the stage until 1:30 in the morning. If we have a situation where there’s any deviation, even by a few minutes, then the headline act of the evening faces criminal sanctions based on the fact that they would be playing past 2:00am.”

Council Member Betty Dunkerley, who co-sponsored the amendment with McCracken, agreed that the arrest of two musicians and their manager last month was clearly an unintended consequence of the current ordinance. “I thought that we had exempted SXSW from the downtown area, and when we looked at the ordinance we had not,” she said. The expanded area would have taken in neighborhoods around the University of Texas, from Lamar to I-35 and north to 29th Street.

Lifting the ordinance downtown during SXSW would not have left the growing residential population there without recourse should shows run late into the evening. Assistant Police Chief Rick Coy explained that officers could still enforce the state statute against disorderly conduct, but it would require one warning before officers cited offending musicians or clubs. That process would also be complaint-driven instead of officer-initiated.

But other members of the Council were not convinced that the ordinance, which was the result of input from a task force featuring musicians, club owners and downtown residents, needed to be changed. “Maybe it’s a radical idea and I’m certainly not involved in running SXSW, but if it’s a problem of running up to two o’clock, maybe they could start 20 or 30 minutes earlier rather than change the law,” said Council Member Daryl Slusher. Council Members Raul Alvarez and Danny Thomas joined Slusher in asking a series of critical questions regarding the proposal. Slusher also expressed concern about expanding the boundaries covered by special provisions of the ordinance that were narrowly tailored to cover the Warehouse District and the Entertainment District on 6th Street.

The vote on the new provisions of the ordinance was a 3-3 tie. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman was not at that portion of the meeting due to a medical condition, but arrived later in the morning. Mayor Will Wynn joined Dunkerley and McCracken in supporting the changes, while Council Members Thomas, Alvarez and Slusher were opposed. Since the motion to enact the changes did not receive a majority vote, it failed.

The issue could go back to the Austin Music Commission, which had sent a resolution to the Council supporting changes to the boundaries, an exemption for SXSW and a procedure allowing clubs offering music outdoors to obtain a waiver from some of the ordinance’s restrictions. “I believe that they will somehow want to try to work through this,” said Commission Chair Teresa Ferguson of her fellow commission members. “Our thought is that a variance process is needed for the sound ordinance. Maybe there’s a way to do both . . . to build in that variance option and allow some type of exception for special events such as SXSW.”

Since the changes to the ordinance were posted on the agenda as an item from a Council member, they could be brought back for consideration at any time. “We discovered that we have a problem during SXSW . . . that musicians are put at risk of arrest for playing music, and I felt we needed to address that,” said McCracken. But he added that changes to the ordinance were not a time-sensitive issue, since the next SXSW Music Festival is still 11 months away. “We’ll keep working to fix this problem,” he said.

Council wants fiscal note on historic panel's proposals

Historic zoning case sent to mediation on 4-3 vote

After praising the task force appointed to help revamp the city’s historic zoning process, the City Council yesterday directed staff to come back in two weeks with an assessment of the budgetary impact of task force recommendations. Betty Baker, chair of the task force, noted that this was the first attempt at revamping the ordinance in 30 years. She said a member of the task force had estimated that limiting tax exemptions to a maximum of 50 percent or $2,000, as the task force suggested, would save the city “in excess of $60,000 annually.”

In addition to the maximum exemption for newly designated historic structures, the task force recommended the following major changes to the ordinance:

Buildings must be at least 75 years old to qualify for a reduced tax bill; those between 50 and 75 years old may still be designated historic without the tax exemption;

A building must be “a significant work of a noted architect, builder, or artisan,” and “must have a substantial association with persons, entities, or events of historical significance” to garner the designation;

Structures already designated historic will maintain their tax exemption until the property changes hands; after that, the new rules would apply to that structure;

(A more thorough review of the task force report may be found at: In Fact Daily, April 7, 2004; April 8, 2004.)

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman said she wants to see a list of all the structures currently designated historic as well as those that have the potential to be zoned historic in the future.

Assistant City Manager Lisa Gordon said, “We’ve been trying for a while to update the inventory and we do have a study going on” with the University of Texas to do just that, she said. But the project has a three-year schedule. Gordon added that the city could provide a list of existing historic structures, but she couldn’t say how long it would take to get a list of the potential ones. City Manager Toby Futrell asked Gordon to come back with a status report on the UT study.

Gordon said after the meeting that she expects staff to offer its assessment of the proposed changes, including the financial impact of the proposals. At that time, Gordon said, she expects the Council would let staff know what ordinance changes they want staff to prepare.

Budget Officer Rudy Garza told In Fact Daily that he would have to consider a lot of variables when considering the economic impact of the proposed rules. He laughed and said he didn’t really have anything else to do right now. His office and the majority of city departments are currently preparing budget plans for the coming year.

Later yesterday afternoon, the Council split 4-3 on the Travis Heights neighborhood request to zone a small bungalow historic over the objections of the owner. The vote was probably not a sign that the house would ever be designated historic because the owner’s valid petition means it will take six Council votes to zone the 1921 Craftsman cottage a historic landmark.

Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky recommended against the designation, saying that the house was not unique, that it had been modified and was not in particularly good condition and was not associated with a particularly historic figure. The Historic Landmark Commission recommended the historic designation on a split vote, but the Planning Commission unanimously recommended against the zoning change.Owner Rusty Bannerman said the home is “in a serious state of decay,” but that he would move the structure to another location instead of demolishing it.

Neighbor Barbara Cilley, who opposes Bannerman’s plans to build a two-story house on the property along with a second house on the two-lot tract, argued that the bungalow had been the home of the historically important Bohn family. In addition, Cilley said the house at 1204 Travis Heights Boulevard serves as part of a gateway to a neighborhood of little 1920s bungalows. “I’ve lived in this neighborhood for 32 years and in the whole time I’ve lived there we’ve never had a structure torn down or moved,” from this street. “I want you to understand what a precedent this is going to create.”

When Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman learned that Bannerman and the neighbors had not discussed the changes he wished to make or the kind of housing he intended to build, she wanted to know why. Bannerman replied that he thought the matter depended on whether the house was historic, adding that he intended to fulfill the mandate of Smart Growth. Council Member Brewster McCracken made a motion to send the parties to mediation and postpone a decision for six weeks.

Council Members Daryl Slusher, Betty Dunkerley and Mayor Will Wynn voted against the motion, which won approval from McCracken, Goodman and Council Members Raul Alvarez and Danny Thomas.

Taste of Mexico means taste of traffic

Confusion over a request for a street closure from the Mexic-Arte Museum lead the City Council into a discussion of overall downtown traffic yesterday. City Manager Toby Futrell offered her apologies for any misunderstanding about the staff’s recommendation for the May 6th event, but stopped short of promising Council Members that the staff’s recommendation would be consistent from year to year.

The city allowed a full closure of the 100 block of 5th Street last year for Mexic-Arte’s “Taste of Mexico” fund-raiser. However, that full closure was not what the staff had recommended, and Futrell called on members of the Transportation Planning and Sustainability Department to outline resulting problems. “The full closure caused traffic to back up through Lavaca. Congress Avenue became grid-locked,” said traffic engineer Alan Hughes. “It just shut down. In a word, it was bad. I can’t tell you how many complaints we got the following week about allowing something like that to happen.”

Staff’s recommendation for the upcoming event was to allow two lanes of 5th Street to be closed beginning at 9am, then for the remaining two lanes to be shut down after 6pm. Council Member Raul Alvarez complained that staff’s shifting suggestions for which lanes to close were causing headaches for Mexic-Arte. “We’ve talked about this…how confusing this process has been because of the mixed messages this group has received from staff over the past three or four years,” he said. “Last time…staff at the last minute changed their recommendation. Staff said ‘Yes, we agree with the full closure’, then the week that we decided to put it on the agenda they decided to change their recommendation.”

Instead of the staff’s recommendation to close two lanes during the day and all four lanes at night, Alvarez suggested closing three lanes during the daylight hours before the complete shut-down after 6pm. That would be a compromise between last year’s full closure all day and the staff proposal. “What I’m offering here is an improvement from last year and really a commitment to work with the organization here to make other accommodations or change the timing so we don’t have to debate this every year,” he said.

Futrell said the staff would be able to start sooner on making its recommendations for next year’s street closure, but could not guarantee consistency on which lanes or how many would be allowed to close for the museum’s fund-raiser. “As these events grow, in a changing configuration of downtown as major arterials are closed for reconstruction, we are having to change the plans for these events from year to year,” she said. “The reason is, our traffic patterns are not the same from year to year.” She also suggested that the city consider taking a harder line on street closures requests in the future. “I think that in our desire to accommodate events, we have not been as strong as we need to be in stressing the impact on traffic of these lane closures,” she said.

Futrell added that the large number of traffic projects impacting downtown was high on her list of priorities. “Our road closures downtown are moving around like dominoes on a board. I go nowhere in this town, not any meeting, not any group…without hearing that the number one frustration is the gridlock we have in our urban core area. We have a great deal of new construction, with building going on particularly in our downtown area that causes lane closures. We have a growing number of street events that are no longer just asking for weekend lane closures but asking for closures during the week and during rush hour. We are in the middle of a massive program of street and road reconstruction after 20 years of delayed road maintenance. When you put all three of these things together, it spells frustration with a capital ‘F’ all over this town.”

A report from the litigators . . . After a hearing that lasted more than three hours, District Judge Lora Livingston yesterday told lawyers for the cities of Austin and Sunset Valley, Lowe’s Home Improvement Centers and the Save Our Springs Alliance that she would ponder their arguments and try to rule on their motions next week. SOSA sued Austin and Lowe’s over a 4-3 City Council vote allowing the store to build a store in disputed territory. The project would not comply with the SOS Ordinance. One of the arguments is over whether the land, which was the subject of legislation specifically exempting it from the Austin’s regulations, including the SOS regulations, is in the ETJ of Austin, Sunset Valley or neither. Austin has argued that the court lacks jurisdiction over the complex case . . . Water quality land preservation. . . More than 800 acres in Hays County will be preserved as part of a unique conservation easement agreed to by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and a private landowner. Local and federal officials will celebrate the deal this morning at Rutherford Ranch on Onion Creek beginning at 11am. The 862-acre tract owned by Anne Schweppe Ashmun will become part of the city's Water Quality Protection Lands program . . . Wi-Fi group moves to Austin . . . The Austin wireless industry is taking a leap forward with today’s announcement that the Wi-Fi Alliance is moving its headquarters to Austin from California. The organization is the international trade association for wireless networking, representing more than 200 of world’s leading technology companies. According to PR reports, the alliance created the Wi-Fi Brand and has certified nearly every Wi-Fi product on the market today for interoperability. The official announcement will be at 10am today at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, regarded as one of the nation’s best airports for Wi-Fi accessibility . . . Strings Attached and Kelly Willis . . . Local country music star Kelly Willis will join Strings Attached tonight from 8-10pm for a collaborative concert at St. David’s Episcopal Church. Tonight’s performers include Will Taylor on violin and viola, Steve Zirkel on bass and trumpet, Eddie Hobizal on piano, Shawn Sanders on cello and Brad Evilsizer on drums . . . Environmental Board lacking one . . . Council Member Daryl Slusher is seeking prospective members of the Environmental Board. The board considers city policies and makes recommendations to the Council on variances for development projects . . . There were no new board or commission appointments this week . . . Steiner tract postponed . . . Consideration of whether to grant single-family zoning for the Steiner tract, which is in Montopolis within the airport overlay, was postponed to May 27, as was an associated amendment to the Montopolis Neighborhood Plan. A request from the House of Tutors at 2400 Pearl in the UT area for a zoning change to mixed use, multi-family high density zoning was postponed to May 6.

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