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Creatives see little to preserve artist, music spaces in CodeNEXT

Thursday, March 2, 2017 by Chad Swiatecki

A month after the release of the first draft of CodeNEXT, supporters of Austin’s various creative communities have said they’re underwhelmed and expecting more protections for artist spaces in revisions of the city’s new land use code.

Whether it be music venues priced out of business by rising land values or studios and theaters that aren’t a natural fit to new developments under current city zoning, arts proponents have consistently used terms such as “underwhelmed” and “disappointed” in describing their reactions to CodeNEXT, which is scheduled for a series of changes and additions before it is adopted by City Council in early 2018.

“I’m quite frankly a little depressed to hear that it isn’t the complete re-write that I think we desperately need,” said Marshall Escamilla, a member of the Austin Music Commission and organizer of a recent mixer with urban land use activists and creative community groups that was held at the Mohawk nightclub. “It should be obvious to everyone that what we have now isn’t working to help give us the Austin we want.”

Escamilla said language that allows live/work space for artists in a variety of settings and greater tolerance for a mix of uses in close proximity would keep artists from getting segregated from the city’s residents and make it easier for neighbors to interact with a variety of businesses and community gathering places close to their homes.

“Right now, it’s functionally illegal for someone to build a two-flat with an artist studio in the back,” he said. “There’s no reason why that needs to be the case.”

Dave Sullivan, a member of the CodeNEXT advisory group, said the roughly 1,200-page document is missing specific language about bars, nightclubs and other uses that are part of the fabric of Austin and that language will have to be added properly into subsequent drafts. The main reason for that, he said, is that the consultants charged with putting the document together faced a time crunch to deliver the first draft by the end of January and left out key concepts and uses that have been intended for the next land use code since the beginning of the Imagine Austin process years ago.

The best hope for venues and arts spaces, Sullivan said, is the planned shift to “form-based” zoning that is less restrictive on how a property is used and focuses more on planning clusters of similar building heights and intensity of activity around major transportation corridors. Such a change would make it easier for a business owner to open a nightclub after clearing city oversight instead of requiring a long public review process.

Describing what he calls the “Sullivan Agenda,” he said he plans to push for language that specifically encourages the creation of creative spaces in the various population clusters around Austin. Citing Austin attractions such as the Cathedral of Junk and the heavily scrutinized Sekrit Theater, he said such spaces could provide consistent career opportunities for Austin artists and give neighborhoods chances to build unique character based around what happens there.

Steven Yarak, a board member of the Austin transportation and land use activist group AURA, said the small number of warehouses and industrial spaces in East Austin that would ordinarily convert into use for theaters and other gathering places are instead being demolished for housing because residential units are hard to build throughout the city.

Yarak said he and other AURA members are pushing for measures that will let Austin build the number of residences the market needs to reduce pressure that is forcing development into historic East Austin neighborhoods and eliminating creative spaces in the process.

Asked what artists and their proponents can do to alter CodeNEXT so its finished version is more creative-minded, he said direct lobbying of Council members is likely the best approach to fix a document he feels is laden with shortcomings.

“You have to engage with Council members on it for anything to happen,” he said. “Staff has done what they’ll do and come up massively short. This has been a political process, and everyone involved has spent four years pretending it was going to be something else.”

Photo by Jennifer Morrow [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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