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Club owners, developers’ input sought for agent of change survey

Monday, January 28, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

The city’s Music and Entertainment division is pushing for more music and entertainment venue operators and members of the local development community to take a survey that will play a major role in shaping the long-brewing “agent of change” ordinance governing noise issues near entertainment districts.

The city’s call for more survey participation comes after an initial look at early responses showed nearly 80 percent of the completed surveys came from residents and neighborhood stakeholders, with only 18 percent from venue owners or operators and 2 percent from the development community.

The comprehensive survey, which closes Wednesday, asks for opinions on a variety of issues related to friction between venues and nearby hotels and residences, including requirements for new businesses, enforcement of the city’s noise ordinance, standards for venues, and how to help existing and new businesses mitigate sound.

The agent of change principle was first raised after a dispute between the East Sixth Street nightclub the Nook and the Westin Austin Downtown, which at the time had recently opened. The hotel’s guests complained about the club’s music despite its volume falling within allowable limits. The principle seeks to put the onus on the newcomer in a district to be made aware of possible noise issues and take action to reduce those impacts rather than using law enforcement or legal remedies.

“We’ve put a lot of materials out there for people to read before going through that exercise and we’re seeing a strong completion rate as well, but when we ask people to self identify, I’m seeing a higher percentage of residents who’ve gone through this exercise,” said David Colligan, acting assistant director of the city’s Economic Development Department.

“We’ve made efforts to contact a number of music venues and different people who are stakeholders in this process, to make sure that we’re representing a diverse audience and that we can collect information that shares with City Council the community values that we need to hear.”

Responses from the survey will be added to feedback from two community input sessions and a third scheduled to take place Saturday at LZR, the downtown event space formerly known as La Zona Rosa nightclub. That data will be gathered and analyzed by California-based consultant Responsible Hospitality Institute and presented to Council as a set of recommendations, most likely shortly after South by Southwest in March.

Colligan and others involved in the process hope to avoid a repeat of summer 2017, when an initial version of the ordinance was tabled because stakeholders from the music, hotel and residential communities saw major problems with accountability and enforcement.

“If a community doesn’t agree I think that’s also a finding that we bring back to Council,” he said. “It’s about elevating a program of work for the Music and Entertainment Division that is consistent and that the public, and the venues, the neighborhoods, the developers and the hospitality groups can all trust.”

Traditionally seen as contentious, there has been a thawing of relations between neighborhood groups and the music community in recent years, in large part because of outreach started with the Red River Cultural District’s pilot program that sought buy-in from residents on later weekend noise limits for outdoor music venues downtown.

David King, a frequent voice on neighborhood issues and member of the Zoning and Platting Commission, said that he and others hope a high response rate from a number of interest groups will result in an agent of change ordinance that will prevent disputes as Austin becomes more densely populated.

“Especially along (transit) corridors where there are big changes coming, you need for people to know their responsibility to add insulation and sound mitigation when there’s going to be an issue,” he said. “This can also be important for existing businesses and we need to be careful with what’s already opened, so that if things need to be handled differently we can do things to make it easy for businesses to implement the sound (mitigation) measures that may be necessary.”

Photo by John Feinberg made available through a Creative Commons license.

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