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Biz leaders ponder how to maintain Austin’s soul

Friday, June 3, 2016 by Jack Craver

Elsewhere in Texas, a conversation about how to save a town’s soul may lead to talk of a mass baptism. But in Austin, the discussion centers more on music and housing.

“Maintaining Austin’s Soul” was the subject that a panel of four business leaders discussed before a crowd of about 250 real estate professionals and others attending the Real Estate Council of Austin’s monthly luncheon at the JW Marriott downtown.

Joe Ables, the owner of the Saxon Pub, reflected on the changes to the city’s nightlife and music scene that he’s witnessed in his more than three decades of operating an iconic nightclub.

“This music scene was built on very cheap rent,” he said. “All this cheap living has gone away. We’re not seeing musicians come to town like we used to.”

Jennifer Houlihan, executive director of Austin Music People, an advocacy group for the local music industry, agreed that high housing costs were making it difficult for artists to stay in Austin and added that the complexity and costs associated with building commercial properties was a barrier for the arts community.

The city may never become “magically” cheap again, said Houlihan, but she expressed hope that it could slow the rate of cost increases by fully implementing the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, which emphasizes increased density along the city’s major corridors, as well as CodeNEXT, which aims to reform and simplify city code.

She’s also optimistic about the proposed Austin Music and Creative Ecosystem Omnibus, which Mayor Steve Adler and others envision as a comprehensive plan for helping Austin’s creative class prosper through city funding, zoning changes, education initiatives and other policies.

In particular, Houlihan highlighted the “Agent of Change Principle” included in the draft proposal. The “transformative” idea, she said, meant that a music venue that comes to town is responsible for maintaining the tranquility that existed in its absence — for instance, through sound mitigation efforts. However, if it is instead a hotel setting up next to a nightclub, it is the hotel’s responsibility to make sure its guests are not disturbed by its noisy neighbor.

Ben Bufkin, principal of Endeavor Real Estate Group, the firm that has overseen the construction of the massive mixed-use Domain development in north-central Austin, said that developers have only just “scratched the surface” in East Austin, which has seen a boom of commercial activity in recent years, accompanied by concerns about gentrification and displacement of longtime residents. Bufkin also saw a lot of potential growth in the South Congress Avenue corridor.

“There are more places (in Austin) where there’s opportunity for future growth than not,” he added.

Steve Simmons, one of the co-founders of Amy’s Ice Cream, proclaimed himself “very bullish” on Anderson Lane, where he recently purchased two buildings. He recalled buying his first building on Burnet Road 11 years ago, a decision he said others thought was crazy.

In addition, he told the audience to pay attention to places outside of Austin, including Bastrop and Dripping Springs.

Simmons also called for a big investment in mass transit, but with a peculiar twist. Rather than create a light rail line that runs through the city’s main transit corridors as has generally been proposed, he suggested that the city build a line that runs along MoPac during the morning and evening rush hours.

“Don’t put it on Guadalupe and Lamar and tear up all those businesses,” he said. “Put it where the people are.”

Ables offered a more succinct response to the moderator’s question about transportation solutions.

“Uber!” he cried, provoking sustained laughter and applause.

Photo by Venturist from London, United Kingdom (giant guitarUploaded by clusternote) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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