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Music proponents continue push for venues in CodeNEXT

Thursday, March 8, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

Proponents of Austin music and the health of clubs and music venues are still pushing to make the final version of CodeNEXT more favorable to those businesses, after failing to win over the planners who contributed to the third draft of the plan.

At Monday’s meeting of the Music Commission, members were informed that the Feb. 12 version of the proposed new city building code does not contain a “live music venue” use, which was lobbied for as a way to make it easier to open clubs with music as a primary focus outside of the downtown core.

The distinction would have split music venues off from the “cocktail lounge” use those businesses are currently classified under, which means they face a tougher and more expensive planning and approval process if located outside of the entertainment districts already established downtown.

The benefits of classifying music venues as a less intense use would be at least twofold. It would make it easier for entrepreneurs to open those businesses in less expensive areas of the city, and the use could be added as a community benefit to mixed-use projects – developers could include a venue on ground floors in exchange for higher population density, for example.

The current draft of CodeNEXT is city staff’s official recommendation, though City Council can make further changes prior to adopting it as the city’s official guide for future development.

That means music and creative spaces proponents have to push the city’s land use commissioners and Council members to make the addition.

“Right now bars and nightclubs need a conditional use permit to open everywhere but downtown, and that is very expensive and requires a site plan approval,” said Dave Sullivan, a member of the CodeNEXT advisory group and activist for area music and creative causes. “So with the live music venue (use), we have to show planners that it’s not creating worse outcomes than already permitted uses, and show things like music venues have fewer drunk driving arrests and that it’s a desirable amenity for the community.”

Commissioners on Monday asked Erica Shamaly, manager of the city’s Music and Entertainment Division, what progress her staff is making in convincing planning and related departments why the change is necessary.

“This is more of an education process that the music division is doing with these other departments so they understand the business model and why it’s necessary to have a specific use for live music that is different from an entertainment venue,” she said. “Not only would we be able to develop in more places with that use, but it’s also a community benefit. A lot of folks would love to see a live music venue closer to their home, but as written it’s going to be difficult to get those land uses in different places.”

The most recent draft of CodeNEXT does include a “performance venue/theater” use that was designed to be easier to add to areas outside of entertainment districts with fewer permit requirements, but its condition that those businesses make less than 51 percent of their revenue from alcohol sales means most music venues couldn’t operate under that use.

Greg Dutton, a principal planner with the Planning and Zoning Department, said staff and members of the Planning Commission are still discussing the music venue use and how to manage the impact of businesses where alcohol is a major revenue driver. A possible fix for live music proponents would be amending the performance venue use to create conditions where a business with proportionally high alcohol sales could be classified as a performance space.

“Allowing only 50 percent of revenue from alcohol sales is a point of discussion because historically if someone said that alcohol sales are more than half of their gross revenue then that makes them a bar,” he said. “If there’s a discussion on the 50 percent number, it’d have to include some kind of additional requirements so that what’s called a theater or performance space doesn’t turn into a bar.”

Curious about how we got here? Check out the Austin Monitor’s CodeNEXT Timeline.

Photo by Gerald Rich (Flickr: Tanlines) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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