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Red River improvements kicking off ahead of district-wide festival

Wednesday, July 12, 2017 by Chad Swiatecki

The installation of three large public art projects and potential action to clean up a crime-ridden alleyway are two pieces of a campaign kicking off this week to improve the image of the Red River Cultural District.

The effort brings together a mix of city departments and private businesses that are focused on preserving the cluster of more than a dozen live music venues on the eastern edge of downtown Austin. Those businesses are seen as being at something of a collective inflection point because of development pressure, rising rents and persistent public safety concerns that make it difficult for the low-profit margin incubator clubs to stay open.

The city has commissioned a survey of the utility lines and property ownership boundaries in the alley that runs between the Beerland and Sidewinder live music venues. The alley has been identified as a hot spot for drug sales, prostitution, loitering and other quality-of-life crimes. Unitech Consulting Engineers is expected to complete the study by the end of the month and then work with city staff to determine if closing the alley to foot traffic is possible, or what other options exist for addressing the crime issue there.

Work is also expected to commence this week on an art installation at the Cheer Up Charlies nightclub, as well as a large neon sign welcoming visitors to the district and a mural at Seventh and Red River streets on the side of Elysium by acclaimed artist and musician Tim Kerr with words by longtime Austin music journalist Michael Corcoran. (A second Kerr mural on the Ninth Street side of Stubb’s BBQ featuring images of the district’s historical music personalities is also being discussed but hasn’t been finalized.)

The projects are timed to coincide with the district’s Hot Summer Nights festival of free concerts featuring local performers, running July 13-16.

The coordinated efforts are something of an about-face for the district, which has long been the most active area for original live music in Austin but suffered from business owners not organizing and working together for district-wide improvements. That has changed with the formation of the Red River Merchants Association, which is working with city staff on plans to install benches and planter boxes, improve lighting and sidewalks, and take other steps to make the area more pedestrian friendly.

“We’re developing solutions for what are some complex situations, and we can be a conductor to make these things possible,” said Nicole Klepadlo, manager for the city’s Soul-y Austin program that helps form neighborhood merchant associations. “We’re now having ongoing conversations with public works, transportation and the police department, as well as surrounding entities that feel as though we need to place more of an emphasis on Red River as a tourist destination.”

Klepadlo said the success of promotional and improvement work in Red River will be evaluated based on sales totals of the district’s bars, pedestrian counts and ongoing data from the pilot program granting extended music curfews to the outdoor venues there. She said the businesses there are also in the beginning stages of doing a long-range survey to gauge public perception of the district.

“It’s a question of how can we change the negatives and go about place branding the area,” she said. “The musicians themselves can be a great asset because we want to learn from their fan base what we can do that will make their experience better.”

Assisting in the project is the public engagement consulting firm Public City, which helps cities connect with residents through art and culture.

Meredith Powell, a partner with the firm, said the attention the district is receiving will help it keep a prominent place in the eastern quadrant of downtown that will see a health care innovation district, the Waller Creek Conservancy and a potentially expanded Austin Convention Center transform the landscape in the coming years.

“In 12 months you’ll see very tangible physical improvements, and what’s exciting is that you see that the pieces of the eastern quadrant of downtown are all coming together,” she said. “The vibrancy there is very interesting and distinct and the Red River Cultural District plays a very big role in what that area will become.”

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

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