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Commission weighing downtown events guidelines

Thursday, June 11, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

The Urban Transportation Commission intends to take a fine-tooth comb to the rules that will come out of the recent special events ordinance, weighing the benefits and effects of the new guidelines on both event organizers and local neighborhoods.

Gordon Derr, assistant director of the Austin Transportation Department, was at UTC Tuesday night to review some of the implications of the new ordinance. In contested cases, a neighborhood protest to a special event permit will go to the UTC before Council makes a final decision. These new guidelines will apply to new applications and not those already in the city pipeline, although even the current ordinance has a process for protesting an event permit.

The task force assigned to the special events went to painstaking detail in discussion how event flow, traffic control and downtown access are handled. For instance, no event can maintain a circular route without proper ingress and egress. And events must leave portions of certain streets – 5th and 6th streets, plus Lamar Boulevard – open so that vehicular traffic can continue to move through the area.

The timeline for notification and protest is a long one, up to six months before the event to get the process started. Derr estimated about 100 to 120 of the 150 events each year are predictable ones, events that will maintain the same route or stationary location from year-to-year, with predictable stakeholders.

Where it sometimes becomes a problem is when multiple events – for instance, the Pecan Street Festival and a local marathon – are scheduled on the same weekend for different parts of downtown. On a Sunday, that makes it difficult for people to get to downtown churches, although Commissioner Allen Demling noted that it sometimes may be better to have multiple events on the same weekend rather than block streets downtown for events, weekend after weekend.

Some, like task force member Kathy Tovo of the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association, recognized the real issue, even beyond the traffic access, was the sheer volume of events. Downtown is popular for runs and festivals. In neighborhoods like Bouldin, event frequency becomes a huge fatigue issue.

Tovo called the compromises between event organizers and the neighborhoods fair, but noted that she would be interested in seeing how many neighborhood associations would continue to push for a cut in the number of downtown events, despite the new accommodations.

Commissioner Dustin Lanier already is calling for a meeting of the subcommittee on the special events issue, wanting to make sure the process set out by the rules actually provides the appropriate points for input and consideration. Lanier also wanted to see the traffic plan – or event layout – filed with the original application for the event, giving as much time as possible to review potential conflicts.

The Transportation Department already has called for all the events for the balance of 2009, Derr said. A subcommittee could easily review those dates. Chair Rich MacKinnon suggested a quarterly meeting of the committee, which already should be meeting to consider any permit protests. Protests can be raised by petition, where at least 20 percent of residents or owners along a portion of a route protest.

Among some of the rules proposed:

  • Particular roadways, especially downtown, must be maintained for vehicle access. For instance, the Congress Avenue and 1st Street bridges cannot be closed at the same time. Also, events cannot encircle an area if it prevents reasonable access;
  • Stationary events must maintain reasonable access to parking facilities, a point that the Downtown Austin Association wants to disseminate and publicize;
  • Walking events must utilize a “bubble” of police protection, which means that police officers would maintain a perimeter around participants;
  • Water and aid stations will be encouraged to be off the streets so that a road can be opened as soon as an event moves through the area; and, in proposed rules,
  • The applicant will encourage attendees to walk or use mass transit for the event.

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