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Council approves extended hours for five Red River music venues

Friday, January 27, 2017 by Jack Craver

Over the objections of a number of neighbors and nearby hotels, City Council approved a six-month pilot program Thursday that will allow a handful of bars on Red River Street to play outdoor live music one hour later into the night on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

The measure, which was approved 9-1-1, with Council Member Ora Houston voting no and Council Member Delia Garza abstaining, was framed as part of an ongoing initiative at City Hall to protect Austin’s independent music scene. Indeed, part of the ordinance directs city staff to try to assess the financial impact that the extended hours will have on musicians and other employees tied to the music industry.

The ordinance affects five music venues that are currently allowed to play outdoor live music until midnight on the weekends: Stubb’s BBQ, Mohawk, Empire Control Room & Garage, Beerland and Cheer Up Charlies. Under the pilot, they will be allowed to play music until 1 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 12:30 a.m. on Thursdays.

The program will run from May to November. Council will decide whether to renew the pilot for an additional six months in October.

The original proposal had called for extending music-playing hours until 1:30 am on Fridays and Saturdays, but Council shortened the extension at the suggestion of Police Chief Brian Manley, who said the earlier curfew would allow his department enough time to clear out crowds on Red River Street before it begins dealing with the crush of humanity unleashed onto nearby Sixth Street when bars there close at 2 a.m.

Owners of the bars affected came to show their strong support for a proposal that they said would deliver a much-needed boost to Austin’s greatest cultural asset.

Ryan Garrett, general manager of Stubb’s BBQ, which responded to noise complaints several years ago by implementing a new sound system (financed by a low-interest loan from the city), called the proposal a jobs program for the music industry.

Cody Cowan, general manager of Mohawk, predicted that the extended hours would increase revenue by 8 to 10 percent. Steve Sternschein, owner of Empire Control Room & Garage, told the Austin Monitor that although the bars may already be allowed to stay open until 2 a.m., they don’t get much business after the bands stop playing.

“Most of these clubs, when you don’t have music playing, you don’t have people there,” he said. “They’re event-driven venues.”

Not all the area businesses were thrilled by the notion of an extra hour of blasting beats. Sunni Dupree, general manager of Hotel Indigo, also located on Red River Street, said the extended hours will “tremendously” impact the hotel’s ability to attract customers.

“We are very disappointed that we have not been engaged” in discussions over the pilot, she added.

Ross Hamilton of JCI Hospitality, a development company responsible for a number of area hotels, including the soon-to-be-opened Hyatt House on Red River Street, suggested his company might not have invested millions of dollars into a new hotel had it known the city was going to change the noise regulations. The financial impact on the hotels, Hamilton predicted, “will far exceed” the benefit to the music venues.

Garza sympathized with Hamilton’s argument and suggested that putting in place new rules seemed to contradict the “agent of change” principle that city leaders have said should guide such decisions. That principle states that new businesses should have to adapt to the setting created by existing ones, not vice versa.

Houston agreed: “(Hotels) built to the requirements that were there when they moved in,” she said.

Neighbors, including those who live far away from the bars, also contended that the music is already far too loud and goes way too late. Mary Ingle, who lives more than 2 miles north of the venues on Duval Street, told the Monitor that the noise from the bars travels through the Waller Creek basin, funneling songs into her home so loudly that she can hear the lyrics.

“Nobody believes us until it happens to them,” she said, suggesting that Council members who voted in favor of the pilot would reconsider if they could see the evidence. “It’s a good thing I’ve got a lot of these Council people on my cellphone because I’m going to call them up, late at night.”

Alex Lopez, director of the Economic Development Department, which will be running the pilot, said that her staff will be monitoring the number of noise complaints to see if the city receives more complaints in the later hours compared to earlier in the evening. The department will also be considering noise mitigation strategies to recommend or require of music venues.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, whose district includes many of the neighbors to the north of Red River Street who have complained about the noise, said that it was a struggle to balance the competing demands surrounding the issue but that feedback from the neighbors after the first six months of the program will be her “uppermost concern.”

Mayor Steve Adler also assured critics of the pilot that Council’s intent was not to simply create a new entitlement for the bars, but to thoroughly investigate ways to improve the situation for all parties.

Photo by Massimo Barbieri made available through a Creative Commons license.

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