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A Council resolution floats safety-minded changes on Sixth Street. Some are more controversial than others.

Tuesday, August 3, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

In response to a recent spate of violence on Sixth Street, City Council unanimously passed a resolution Thursday that sets out to tackle long-neglected safety problems in the area.

If the proposed changes in the resolution come to fruition after discussions among city staffers and Council, the nighttime experience on Sixth Street will change – hopefully for the better.

“We have seen a rash of really tragic violence on Sixth Street, and it made moving these issues forward imperative,” said Council Member Kathie Tovo, who sponsored the resolution and whose district includes Sixth Street. Multiple shootings have taken place on or near Sixth Street recently, including a mass shooting in June in which one person died.

Tovo also recounted the shooting of a homeless woman who became a casualty of a street fight she was not involved in. “The preponderance of evidence suggests that she was there trying to get a drink of water during the period of time where this fight broke out among 60 people, and she was shot dead,” Tovo said.

Though the resolution passed unanimously, Council members had reservations about some of its proposals, such as opening the street to cars and bringing back a juvenile curfew.

The resolution calls for an interdepartmental team of city staff members to consider the changes. Their work will result in a nightlife management plan for Sixth Street between Congress Avenue and Interstate Highway 35 – work that has been done piecemeal in the past, but hardly acted upon.

Among the changes for the team to consider: adding more lights and pedestrian-oriented improvements like seating, barriers and other street furniture; opening the street up to cars to prevent people from congregating in the street; establishing a curfew for juveniles to prevent violence and underage drinking; changing land use rules to incentivize non-bar uses; creating entertainment licenses to better regulate bars; and creating a dedicated EMS presence on weekend nights.

Though past studies and Council actions have led to some changes, many improvements have not yet been implemented. Thursday’s resolution also directs city staff to say which of the past recommendations have been put in place and which haven’t.

For safer streets … add cars?

The headline-grabbing piece of the resolution – the seemingly counterintuitive safety solution of opening the street to cars at night – was met with concern by Council members and others.

“I think reopening a heavily pedestrianized corridor to cars seems like moving in the reverse,” Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison said. “I think in terms of limiting violence, it could be cutting off our nose to spite our face.”

Tovo told KUT last week that allowing cars could stop violence by preventing people from congregating in the street. To back up the suggestion, she cited recommendations in a study by nonprofit Responsible Hospitality Institute (the Austin Monitor was unable to receive a copy of the study).

Tovo emphasized that the resolution does not implement this change, but rather asks staff “to look at a recommendation that has been made several times.”

“Obviously it would not be something we would want to do anytime soon, given the crowds there,” Tovo added. The street has been closed on weekend nights since the 90s.

Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday told the Austin Monitor that doing so “would be a disaster,” and that “the officers are against it.” Casaday described the chaotic scene that arose when the city last opened the streets years ago: “We had to have officers at every intersection directing traffic because the kids were running out in front of traffic. It was just extremely dangerous.” Casaday said more lighting and halo security cameras would be better solutions.

Adam Greenfield, president of advocacy group Walk Austin, said in a statement to the Monitor that “car-free hours on 6th should be expanded, not reduced.”

“Car-free 6th Street evenings keep speeding vehicles away from high pedestrian foot traffic and help the local economy and bring enjoyment to large numbers of visitors and locals alike,” Greenfield said.

Austinites saw the carnage cars can cause in 2014 when a drunk driver barreled through a crowd during South by Southwest, killing four people and injuring over a dozen more.

Return of the curfew?

The resolution also raises the issue of reintroducing a policy Council ended in 2017: a curfew for juveniles. Tovo’s resolution calls for “potentially limiting the presence of underage Austinites on Sixth Street during weekend evenings,” and the ensuing conversation about curfews provoked mixed responses from Council members.

Council Member Pio Renteria supported a curfew. “Most of these shootings and incidents happen late at night,” Renteria said. “My biggest fear is that one of these young people are going to get killed or shot.”

Harper-Madison and Council Member Vanessa Fuentes pushed back. “I would just like to make it duly noted that I think curfew is a bad idea,” Harper-Madison said.

“We know that that type of policy disproportionately targets communities of color, and our youth can be out at night for a number of reasons,” Fuentes said. “Perhaps they are working a job to support their family or perhaps they’re experiencing homelessness.”

Casaday said the APA supports a curfew in the area because “a lot of the juveniles that are down there now are doing things that they shouldn’t be doing.” Casaday said under a curfew, juveniles working in the area would ideally have a letter from their employer to avoid a citation.

A land use intervention

Some Council members, as well as landowners in the area, have discussed how to change the mixture of businesses in an area that is almost exclusively bars and restaurants. Tovo told the Monitor she wanted to “open that conversation” about land use changes that might promote “a more diverse array of businesses on Sixth Street.”

“I know some of the property owners are exploring that as well and are interested in asking the city to consider some adjustments to the current zoning or to the current overlay to see whether that helps achieve some of these aims,” Tovo said.

Due to the corridor’s historic character, changing zoning – much less redeveloping property – may be difficult. Zoning changes would have to be initiated by Council or the Planning Commission, and then go through the code amendment process, which includes public comment and board and commission review, before returning to Council. Redevelopment of buildings is unlikely, as many have historic designations.

Sixth Street was not always an entertainment district. Pre-World War II, the street was a bustling shopping area, particularly for Black and other minority Austinites, according to Austin Daily History. After the war, however, most commercial uses moved out and were replaced with payday loan providers and pawn shops, turning the area into “a virtual Skid Row.” Only later, in the 80s and 90s, did the area develop a thriving nightlife scene.

“It is a historic district,” Tovo said. “It is a historic street. It’s Austin’s first entertainment district. And so that historic element really needs to be primary to any consideration of land use change, but I’m certainly willing to have the conversation.”

‘We have to take action’

As the interdepartmental team discusses the changes, the least controversial ones – lighting, for example – will be implemented administratively. The resolution’s more controversial suggestions, if the team recommends them, will come back to Council before being put in place.

Tovo hopes the resolution will change things on Sixth Street after years of talk, studies and resolutions, but few results. “We have to take action along Sixth Street,” Tovo said. “If we can’t effect any changes with this resolution, I’m just going to bring forward another one and another one until we get a safer situation down there.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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