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Music, arts proponents renew push in land use code for creative spaces

Monday, August 9, 2021 by Chad Swiatecki

Music and creative proponents are renewing a push to change the city land use code to make it easier for live music venues and other creative spaces to open throughout the city.

The Music Commission voted unanimously last Monday in support of a draft letter from a working group made up of members of the arts and music commissions, asking City Council and the mayor to push city staff to include considerations for those spaces in an update to the code that is expected this fall.

The letter writers want the new Land Development Code to designate music venues and creative spaces as separate uses from bars and nightclubs, which require special planning and zoning approvals to open in spaces outside of downtown. The letter also asks that a section of the code be dedicated to “diversify, sustain and cultivate art, music and culture,” creating a placeholder for more detailed language that could be finalized at a later date.

Distinguishing live music venues and performance spaces such as theaters from bars and nightclubs is an important consideration for giving those businesses more opportunities to operate around the city while still observing the city’s noise ordinance and other quality-of-life regulations.

The Imagine Austin comprehensive plan for future land use specifies entertainment districts located in neighborhoods throughout the city as a priority. Stakeholders for those businesses argue that the combination of rising rents for commercial properties downtown and the extensive planning and zoning requirements for bars and nightclubs make the proposed changes to the land use code necessary to open arts venues elsewhere.

“This separates music venues from nightclubs and bars … to make it easier in theory to have a live music venue when you have districts that may make it not OK to have bars located there, open up at a lower cost and offer more diversified ownership opportunities spread around the city,” Commissioner Graham Reynolds said. “Right now more bars and these creative spaces are concentrated downtown in very specific places and we’re trying, without imposing on the peace and quiet of neighborhoods, to make venues more accessible to a geographically wider segment of the city.”

The latest push to reduce the approvals and regulations on music- and arts-focused venues began as part of the CodeNEXT process that kicked off in early 2017, but was eventually abandoned by City Council in 2018 due to conflicting priorities and unhappiness with the draft document.

Mayor Steve Adler and Council members have since moved to update the Land Development Code in pieces and sections rather than as one comprehensive document. The working group’s letter is an attempt to ensure that creative spaces are not left out of the piecemeal approach.

“It’s nice to see the (music venue) definition snake its way through a couple of years and continue to resurface,” Commissioner Stuart Sullivan said. “It seems like on one side we’re looking at making it easier for venues and on the other side I almost see it as trying to get this kind of use codified in the city as an institution, as a right in the way that clean water is.”

Reynolds said the language will also make it easier for the city to incentivize creative spaces as a community benefit in developments around the city. The music venue definition that specifies desired business practices relating to music will help ensure that those spaces do their part to promote creative culture.

“If we incentivize supporting diverse live music, we can’t have business owners that take advantage of those incentives and benefits by throwing a musician in the corner and not really treating them well, paying them well, and still saying, we’re a music venue.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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