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Agent of change revamp to add hotels could delay vote on proposal

Wednesday, May 31, 2017 by Chad Swiatecki

Austin’s much-debated policy proposal to address conflicts between music venues and nearby developments appears to be getting a makeover and a possible delay from a planned early June vote by City Council.

That was the feeling of venue owners, city staff and Mayor Steve Adler after a quickly called meeting at City Hall on Tuesday. That meeting saw the business owners share their collective disagreement with the shape of the so-called “agent of change” principle and the intent to create an entertainment license to regulate the city’s live music industry.

One of the biggest concerns comes from an exemption for hotels in the agent of change rules, which would make the business that moves into a dense area responsible for mitigating the effects of its presence on surrounding properties.

That exemption keeps the policy from addressing one of the biggest potential conflict points between existing venues and hotels that move in near popular entertainment districts. That dynamic is currently playing out in a lawsuit between the Westin Austin Downtown and the Nook Amphitheater, which hotel management accused of playing music at unacceptable levels on weekend nights.

Staff from the city’s Economic Development Department had included the exemption after a series of community meetings on the issue brought pushback from the local hotel industry over concerns that extra soundproofing and possible noise complaints from guests would hurt their business.

Other complaints came over the proposed entertainment license, which was envisioned two years ago as a tool to unlock incentives such as liquor tax rebates but has come to be viewed by many as a regulation without much purpose since outdoor venues are already required to obtain permits.

After the meeting Adler told the Austin Monitor the June 8 target date to get the policies on the Council agenda may not happen.

“It’s important not to do anything until we know we can do it right, and that depends in large part on the scope of what we’re trying to address,” he said. “It seems to me that (agent of change) is a policy that has to apply to everybody, and having holes in it makes no sense to me. We all discussed that a policy like that needs to apply to everybody involved.”

Adler also said the permitting holdups the entertainment license was conceived to address could likely be solved with less sweeping changes that would be easier to implement individually.

Tuesday’s meeting came after high-profile criticism of the policies, as well as a series of letters from a selection of music venue owners and advocates expressing their worries that a “toothless” agent of change policy would do nothing to address to the growing tension between entertainment businesses and encroaching development.

The letter from Stephen Sternschein, co-owner of Empire Garage and Control Room, said, in part, “It took me over two years to obtain the upwards of 16 different permits from seven different departments to open Empire Garage. In order to get through this process, we had to compromise our initial vision in a very significant way, only to find out later that the changes we made to our site plan in order to comply with city requests were in fact completely unnecessary. Today, we are randomly and inconsistently regulated by these departments in ways that keep me in a constant state of uncertainty about whether my business is actually compliant. We are concerned that the current proposal does not reflect the findings of the Music Census or any of the feedback that I and my colleagues have provided.”

Following the meeting Sternschein told the Monitor he and others are optimistic that the proposals will be updated to better reflect the needs of Austin’s creative industries.

“It’s premature to tell how productive it was, but staff said they were going to make changes so we’re waiting on them to revise it and then we’ll see if people feel more comfortable about it,” he said. “I was glad that the mayor’s position is, if we can’t figure it out before the Council meeting then we’ll have to delay it.”

Photo by la-underground made available through a Creative Commons license

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