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Kitchen to take up city efforts to preserve music, arts venues

Tuesday, December 12, 2017 by Chad Swiatecki

Council Member Ann Kitchen has started work on a resolution that will direct city staff to examine ways for the city to step up and help prevent music venues, small community theaters and other creative spaces from being priced out of their long-standing locations.

Kitchen said the effort is still in the very preliminary stages but some possible steps could include expanding existing programs for rental and capital improvement assistance for venues and tailoring the city’s economic incentives program to improve the business health for groups that are frequently low margin or nonprofit.

“I’ve been talking with community folks about how to be broader with what we do, because it’s great to be a city that supports the arts but if we don’t put the resources in with the private sector those people won’t be able to stay here,” Kitchen told the Austin Monitor. “Our new economic incentives package comes back in the spring and it is part of that, because we need to recognize that spaces for the arts and music should be used as an economic driver.”

Theater groups such as the Off Center and Salvage Vanguard have been the most prominent groups forced from their venues in the past two years by rent increases or redevelopment. The city’s rapidly growing property values are also a constant concern for music venues, including the cluster of clubs located in the Red River Cultural District.

Kitchen said she’s currently exploring possibilities “on several fronts” and wants her eventual resolution to generate a list of existing arts venue assistance programs and start a discussion on how the city’s next round of bond proposal votes could include money to direct for creative spaces and groups. She said that resolution would likely be introduced at City Council’s first meeting of 2018.

Kitchen said another possible resource for arts groups is the use of money from the city’s growing Hotel Occupancy Tax, which has been identified as the most likely funding source for a proposed $600 million expansion of the Austin Convention Center, with a series of other community needs including support for the commercial music industry also in line to receive HOT funds as part of Mayor Steve Adler’s “downtown puzzle” proposal.

“The challenge is finding the resources, given that we have a lot of competing needs and affordability as a whole is tough to address from the city side,” Kitchen said. “What’s happening is we have artists in what were affordable spaces in East and South Austin, and the biggest impact is on their ability to stay in those spaces.”

Kitchen’s possible action comes as Austin’s Music Commission and Arts Commission have stepped up pressure on city staff to look for vacant or underutilized city property that could possibly be converted into short-term use by arts or music groups.

Mashell Smith, the city’s land management real estate supervisor, told the Music Commission last week that such an effort could be difficult to execute because the city currently uses or has a planned future use for every piece of property it owns. The only exception is a group of 15 unimproved parcels around the city that were acquired and then not used for large capital projects.

Smith told the commission she and other staff involved in city real estate can investigate the possible use of specific properties the city owns. She said combing through the entire list of city land would likely prove frustrating and fruitless.

“It’s easier to solve for something if I know what I’m solving for,” she said. “If there was a case where the perfect situation is eight acres in the 78757 ZIP code that the city could do a long-term ground lease and allow the nonprofit to build on it, then what does that look like?

“Or is your ask that I need something in every single district that has to be 2,000 square feet and it needs to have at least 20 parking spaces? I don’t know what you’re looking for. I know you say you’re looking for ‘anything available,’ but it’s easier to solve if I know what you’re looking for. Yes we have properties, but there are a million needs and all of them are important.”

Chair Gavin Garcia said he and other commissioners plan to remain vocal about the needs of the city’s creative community, and expect city leaders to be responsive in the coming election year.

“This is about property in a city that instills its creative virtue,” he said. “Art galleries are fading away and artists are moving away and musicians are finding other places to be.”

Photo by LBJ Library.

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