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Can Austin help save Austin music?

Thursday, July 30, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

Amid concerns that Austin’s rising costs may be driving out the music industry that has been so integral to the city’s popularity, Austin Music People released its Biennial White Paper yesterday. As a supplement to the paper’s extensive policy recommendations, the group included a Music City Report Card, which graded the city on everything from its Music Office to music tourism.

The city earned a C- average.

AMP met with stakeholders and the press Wednesday to discuss ways the city might raise that GPA, as outlined in the 35-page white paper. Significantly, the meeting took place at Holy Mountain, a venue that will soon be closing due to soaring rents downtown despite its location in the Red River Cultural District.

“This is what happens when property values increase, when a creative community comes into town and kind of makes it their own,” said Brad Spies, who serves on AMP’s board of advisers and is the former chair of the city’s Music Commission. “A lot of other people kind of want to jump in the pool, property values increase, and it happens all over the world.”

The recommendations in the white paper were divided into short-term changes that could be implemented in a year or less, larger programs that could be accomplished in 12-18 months and ideas that would lay the groundwork for a sustained future for Austin’s music industry.

Though the white paper addresses issues citywide, in his presentation Spies drew particular attention to the current plight of Red River.

“There is one area that we feel needs some TLC, and that is Red River,” said Spies. “Red River … is one of the very few places you can park a car once and go to (a number of) music venues. And it is facing a very real threat.”

Spies explained that the “volcano of development” that will be set off by the medical school and the Waller Creek development will put “significant pressures on the property values to increase.”

To combat those development pressures, AMP has suggested that the city look into the possibility of allowing properties in the area to transfer their development rights to other parcels, which would lessen the pressure to build. The paper also asks the city to explore an overlay for the district that would strengthen preservation of creative uses, offer tax credits for property owners who voluntarily restrict their deeds and allow stakeholders to have more of a say in development.

In terms of immediate fixes, AMP calls for one new full-time employee to focus on land-use and real estate needs for Austin’s music community. That position, as proposed, would be created in the city’s Economic Development Department during this budget cycle and would track venues, creative spaces in the city and city facilities, offer credit and tax guidance, and explore the ideas presented in the AMP white paper, among other things.

In June, the Austin Music Census found that 61 percent of venue respondents thought that the current permitting process is “inefficient, cumbersome and confusing.” The census found that there is no single point of contact, or online resource, that aided venue operators in permitting, and “to the extent that the required permits could be identified,” basic operating permits required contact with and approval from at least seven different city departments.

AMP’s paper pushes for immediate changes and more clarity in the city’s “arcane” permitting process and sometimes-confusing enforcement policies and practices. The recommendations include providing a consolidated application for permits, decreasing entertainment licensing from one year to every two years and appointing a permit ombudsman for the creative community to help lessen the currently convoluted process.

Land-use issues in the city, and how they are factoring into the current stress being placed on venues and creative spaces, play a major role in this year’s report.

Policy suggestions include the idea of establishing a “creative” zoning category for mixed-use development. Getting into the weeds, the paper also asks City Council to revise the Downtown Density Bonus Program, Planned Unit Development Ordinance and Vertical Mixed Use Ordinance in a way that could incentivize developers to retain existing creative spaces.

The paper suggests that preservation of venues could be incorporated as a “community benefit,” along with things like open space and public art, when the city considers granting increased zoning entitlements, much like is currently the case for affordable housing.

Others suggestions include the creation of a Music Enterprise Zone, which would incentivize music-based and creative businesses in a designated area, and the expansion and revision of the existing Business Retention and Enhancement Program.

That program, explained Spies, provides low-interest loans to existing businesses that are threatened with displacement due to development. However, the current incarnation of the program applies only to two thin slivers of the city and to businesses that meet criteria that, said Spies, “sound like they are from the vaudeville days.”

Long-term, the paper asks that the next General Obligation Bond program include facilities and strategies for music and the creative industries. AMP also proposes a music industry master plan that would take a high-level look at the next 10 years in the music industry.

“It’s not really an active denial of music,” said Spies. “It hasn’t been considered because it’s been such an organically developing thing. And now, it’s really under threat by a lot of different, perfectly natural market forces. But it’s time for us to take a look and say, ‘Hey, we actually need some help.’ We need some consideration.”

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