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Waller Creek development could put Red River music district in jeopardy

Monday, May 20, 2013 by Ramon Ramirez

The Red River District is a creative hub within Austin’s live music scene, but an imminent swell of development could change that. The Waller Creek Tunnel is scheduled for a late 2014 completion, and over the next decade the surface improvements will dramatically change the area.

Partial funding of the project – from design to paying all the contractors – is coming from future gains in taxes that stem from increased real estate prices. Property values are expected to be at an all-time high, and few of the club owners double as landlords.

Many see the writing on the wall, yet Graham Williams is optimistic about business after Waller.

Williams is the founder of Transmission Events, an Austin-based company that books festivals like the annual Fun Fun Fun Fest at Auditorium Shores; industry parties for the likes of Rolling Stone magazine during South by Southwest; and nightly concerts at Red River clubs like The Mohawk, Red 7 and Club de Ville.

“I don’t see it affecting things as much as most do. People get scared and assume the worst,” Williams wrote via email. “Anything could happen, sure, but all those landlords are re-signing long leases with all the bar owners, so it doesn’t sound like there is any development anytime soon.”

Landlords for The Mohawk, Red 7 and Club de Ville, could not be reached for comment.

Beerland’s owner, Randall Stockton says he grew nervous when his landlord began to relegate him to year-to-year leases. As a result, he’s been looking to move out of his Red River space for the last three years. Stockton says staying in business after Waller will be “sort of impossible.”

“I’ve never candy-coated the writing on the wall,” Stockton said.

But how will the remaining Red River’s venues fit into the Waller Creek Tunnel and its projected 5,500 feet in length from Waterloo Park to Lady Bird Lake? Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole stresses that live music will be a “critical part” of the Waller development, adding that “we do not intend to eliminate” Red River’s culture of live music. Cole says that the “clustering of multiple venues is critical” for Waller.

“The assumption that they won’t be there is pure speculation,” Cole said.

Indeed some venues are already planning for a future on Red River.

“Stubbs’s is likely developing more, Mohawk added more decks,” said Williams.

The timeline is tough to pin down, but the next decade will be fraught with change. During the process, Cole emphasizes that “there’s room for a lot of players” at the development level.

But Stockton remains pessimistic, “For all the nice things the city says it’s already really kind of done.”

The question for Red River’s talent-incubating scene seems to be when, not if the development will bring major changes.

“There is no timetable,” Cole said, “You are never finished with Central Park, you are never finished with Millennium Park, you are never finished with the Riverwalk.”

And live music does not have to mean dive bars. Cole points to the successful, frequent and free outdoor programming New York City’s Bryant Park offers as a model that works to incorporate culture into its outdoor spaces. At its core, she says that Waller Creek is a project developed to reflect Austin’s environmental values.

As downtown density plans take root, the city may be looking to incorporate potential live music density bonuses. If zones like Red River offer density bonuses to developers that incorporate live music, it could greatly increase the scene’s long-term outlook.

But it seems likely that recent history’s path of development will continue. With the exception of South by Southwest, Sixth Street has not been known for live music in at least 10 years. If sustainable and green growth moves out the low-margin punk rock tenants that weekly preside over counterculture staples like “Rock and Roll Karaoke” or the “Drunken Spelling Bee,” the next question becomes where does the scene go?

According to Williams, taking cues from defunct Red River spaces that have been revived on East Riverside during the past two years is a bad idea.

“That place is where venues go to die, in my opinion. Beauty ballroom closed in 11 months, Emo’s had to be sold after less than two years due to losses. I can’t imagine Antone’s doing well over there, either. Just because something is ‘east of the highway’ doesn’t mean it’s the same as East 6th or 5th, which have a vibrant business community. By that logic, we should open rooms out in Manor or Bastrop because it’s east. Emo’s opened because the owner sold the property on 6th and Red River for a ton of money (which was always the plan) and rent was cheap in a strip mall on East Riverside. Low risk move, but a soulless space in my opinion. The old location/building had a lot of character.”

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