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Hotel construction casts a shadow over downtown music venues

Tuesday, June 23, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

This past weekend, worries that a new downtown hotel was threatening Cheer Up Charlies and the Mohawk overtook Austin’s social media.

A lot of Austinites’ concerns focused on whether a parking garage for the Hyatt House hotel would destroy the iconic white cliff at Cheer Up Charlies. After some panic, it appears that is not the plan, although the club owners worry that construction of the garage and the fencing of the cliff may irreparably damage their business.

But just a few feet away, an alley between Cheer Up Charlies and the Mohawk may prove a more difficult problem to solve.

James Moody, who owns the Mohawk, spoke with the Austin Monitor on Monday about a sudden order to vacate the alley, which holds dumpsters for the Mohawk. He explained that the current use of the alley has been approved by various city officials since he purchased the venue in 2006 and has been used for that purpose for at least 15 years.

Moody said he was totally surprised by the notice, which gave him 15 days to vacate the alley. He said that though the city refused to say what the alley was needed for, it is obviously because of the Hyatt House hotel project behind the venues, despite the fact that project workers have taken pains to avoid using the alley themselves.

“If we want our live music venues to go away, this is a great way to go about doing it,” said Moody. “There is no alleyway. It’s rocks, limestone, trees, there’s a deck, two dumpsters, and there’s the former little driveway for the dumpsters. So undoing it is a major undertaking. It’s totally unreasonable, there’s no way to afford it, it will probably put both clubs out of business and there would be no place to store refuse and trash and keep things sanitary. It’s ridiculous from whatever angle you look at it.”

Carolyn Perez, who is a spokesperson for the Public Works Department, explained that the portable toilet, fence and dumpsters have to go. As it stands right now, she said, the department is waiting to hear how the clubs will “take the necessary actions to remove the obstructions.”

“We’ve advised them (that) they need to remove these structures. As it is a public right of way, Austin Energy needs access to it to install a conduit to provide electrical service to another customer that’s in there, within that same block,” said Perez. “I don’t know who the other customer is.”

Perez said the city has done a survey of the alley and it is “definitely public right of way.”

“I mean, I couldn’t build in the public right of way in front of my house, either,” said Perez. “Because if the city needs to come in and install a service or repair something … we run into that a lot, with people putting up landscaping in what they think is private property, but it’s actually public right of way.”

Of course, using public right of way downtown is hardly untrodden ground. In fact, less than two years ago, City Council refined the rules around permanent encroachments of public right of way. At the time, it cited the W Hotel’s overhang and sidewalk rerouting directly next door to City Hall.

For its part, the Hyatt seems to want to steer clear of the controversy. A statement from the company reads:

“The unique and dynamic culture of this neighborhood is what draws Hyatt to this part of Austin, and we want to do everything we can to be great neighbors to those establishments that make the neighborhood so unique. Along with Journeyman Group, the Austin-based property developer, we’ve worked carefully with the city and property owners to create construction plans specifically designed to avoid any disruption to the local music venues and to ensure the upcoming Hyatt House hotel can make a positive contribution to the neighborhood alongside the existing six Hyatt-branded hotels throughout Austin.

“We certainly want to ensure the development supports the local businesses near the hotel.”

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, who represents District 9, told the Monitor she is taking the issues seriously.

“People are rightly concerned about the Red River Cultural District,” said Tovo. “They don’t want to see it disappear.”

Tovo explained that her office has been looking into both Cheer Up Charlies’ rock wall and the alley issue since this weekend. At this point, she said she understands that there will be temporary fencing put in place over the face of the wall to protect it from damage and to protect people from falling rocks.

However, after a day of asking questions, Tovo said she is still not sure whether the scaffolding requires permits, and has not gotten a definitive answer about whether any loose rock will be removed from the rock wall.

Tovo’s office has questions about the alley, too, but she told the Monitor  that they have “no answers at this point.”

To get those answers, Tovo’s office has arranged a private stakeholder meeting about the situation for this Wednesday. That meeting will include representatives from Cheer Up Charlies and the Mohawk as well as staff from the Public Works Department, the Real Estate Services Office, Development Services, environmental staff and Austin Energy. A representative from Tovo’s office said they have also extended an invitation to Hyatt House and its developers but have not yet heard back.

“This is the city of Austin growing, and the right hand not talking to the left hand. Unfortunately, music clubs are getting the brunt of this stuff lately,” said Moody. “There are alternative ways for Public Works to get their needs taken care of. It’s just going to cost more money for them. But it certainly shouldn’t cost small-business owners money to service the Hyatt. Why should we finance the needs of the Hyatt? We’re the cultural reason to stay at the Hyatt.”

Photo by Dan Keshet

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