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Another alley fence delay adds to frustration for clubs in Red River district

Thursday, August 29, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

The city may need until late November to install a gate to an alley on Red River Street between Seventh and Eighth streets. That opens up the chance of going past a promised Nov. 1 deadline to close off an area that has long been a focal point of criminal activity in the Red River Cultural District.

The delay on the fence, which those in the district have requested for years, has triggered frustration from club operators who say the drug use and sex trafficking activities and human waste left behind in the alley have a negative impact on their business.

In an email sent out Friday, a city spokesman told interested parties in the district that the city has entered into a construction contract with JOC contractor Alpha Building Corporation to install the fence, with an expectation of completing the project in 12 weeks from the notice to proceed, which was issued Monday. That timeline was the result of a backlog in work from the metal fabricators supplying materials for the fence, along with extra time needed to complete grading and paving work in the alley.

The delay means the alley will likely still be open during the two weekends of the Austin City Limits Festival in October, which is one of the busiest stretches of business for the music venues in the district. Owners and operators there have been working with the city and other groups in recent years to stabilize their business as property values throughout downtown Austin cause rents to increase, potentially forcing slim-margined music venues out of those locations.

“The owners and operators in the Red River Cultural District are frustrated by this because this is something that should have been wrapped up a long time ago but it continues to be delayed for one reason or another,” said Ryan Garrett, general manager of the Stubb’s concert venue. “It’s unacceptable, and the majority of city officials feel the same way. There’s a lesson to be learned here about how not to execute a city endeavor that is critical to the preservation of the district.”

In the response thread to the Friday email, Cody Cowan, executive director of the Red River Merchants Association, said the businesses expect the city to meet the timelines set by Mayor Steve Adler and other City Council members, with clear milestones and regular communication about progress on the construction. “In our experience, operating without deadlines and accountability guarantees loss,” he wrote.

Adler told the Austin Monitor he had recently taken the issue to City Manager Spencer Cronk to emphasize its urgency and to find out why no action had been taken since mid-2017, when Council passed a resolution directing the then-acting city manager to establish a plan for making improvements to the area.

“I share their frustration and I also don’t understand why this has taken so long,” Adler said.

“On big, massive projects like the 2016 roads and transportation bond proposal, on that we’re able to stay on budget and we’re ahead of schedule, but for some reason this one isn’t getting done. It’s unfair to just blame this on bureaucracy, but that doesn’t excuse that this has taken as long as it has.”

Garrett and other business people in the district said the city and groups such as the Downtown Austin Alliance have responded appropriately to the shootings and other violence that took place there in July. Increased police presence throughout the district was one of the immediate results of a quickly called meeting in late July that was attended by 75 business owners, elected officials and other stakeholders.

Council Member Kathie Tovo, whose district includes much of downtown Austin, said city staff told her issues with access and exit points for businesses on the alley, and determining how to clean up years of accumulated human waste and other items, have played a part in delaying the fence construction.

“I’m hoping that 12 weeks is a conservative estimate on our part, and I understand that the business owners there are frustrated by the lack of progress because this is something that has been under exploration by Economic Development for some time,” she said. “It’s frustrating to see very few of the things we approved have moved forward.”

The issue of safety and the business climate for clubs in the district has been an ongoing issue for the Music Commission, with the city expected to deliver a progress report on the area at next month’s meeting.

Chair Rick Carney said the alley’s presence as a haven for criminal activity and that unsavory behavior has been known to Austin musicians for more than a decade, making its current state difficult to justify.

“It’s been an ongoing complaint for 10 years or more, and from my years of playing Beerland we all knew that alley was no-man’s-land and you didn’t want to go back there because it wasn’t a safe environment,” he said. “I understand that there are different city departments involved and there’s a bidding process and all the stuff that has to happen, but it sort of epitomizes the struggle in dealing with these issues, that something that is seemingly fairly simple to pull off becomes very, very complicated and takes a lot longer than expected.”

Map courtesy of Google Maps.

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