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Council seeks to incentivize new creative spaces

Thursday, September 8, 2022 by Chad Swiatecki

The city will look for ways to incentivize developers to build creative spaces such as galleries and theaters into new projects in the coming years, building on a decision last month to incentivize new live music venues.

At last week’s City Council meeting, the consent agenda included a resolution led by Council Member Ann Kitchen that seeks to clearly define a broad mix of creative spaces in the city’s building code. It also directs the city manager to create specific considerations in a new Arts, Music and Culture code section that could allow for greater flexibility for arts and music spaces to open in all commercial and industrial/warehouse districts.

Arts and music advocates began pushing more than five years ago for specific language that would separate music venues and arts spaces from the bar and nightclub zoning that makes those businesses difficult to open outside of downtown entertainment districts.

The resolution approved last month was noteworthy for finally defining what constitutes a music venue in Austin. The new resolution pairs with that policy to give greater specificity on zoning considerations and what kinds of incentives could be provided for adding either of those uses into new building projects.

Last month Kitchen had expressed some concern that theaters, galleries and other arts spaces could be left behind in the incentives race, with Mayor Steve Adler asking her to sponsor an arts-specific resolution.

“It seems to me that along with the music item, the two probably need to kind of move forward together with one another with the staff,” he said. “I spent more time on mine on the definition side and less thinking of the incentives, where yours has less to establish the definition but more on the incentives. I think they probably help each other.”

Kitchen said she looks forward to the recommendations staff will bring back that could lead to financial and planning enticements for developers who are open to putting a novel use category into some of their projects.

“We recognize the importance of creativity to Austin’s identity and economic prosperity and we all know that arts and culture and creativity are essential keys to our distinctive identity,” she said. “This is parallel to and works as a nice complement to the resolution the mayor brought forward last month related to live music venues. I’ll be excited when both of these items come back to the Council to give us an opportunity to be more specific in our code about ways we can incent and help ensure creative spaces and live music spaces in our community.”

The move to amend the building code in favor of creative spaces comes as the city’s Economic Development Corporation is moving ahead with its evaluation of applications from arts and music organizations looking to use some of the more than $19 million available to open or sustain creative spaces. At last month’s Arts Commission meeting, EDC Board Member Carl Settles said an undisclosed 14 projects from the 45 applicants were being evaluated for possible awards, with another 16 recently added to the mix for future consideration. He said the evaluation process is expected to continue into the late fall.

Also, the latest batch of grants from the city’s Creative Space Assistance Program will be open for new applicants beginning in October. The program has $1.5 million available to assist nonprofit arts groups and working artists looking for money to cover rent increases, facilities improvements or other space needs.

Grants will range from $5,000 to $50,000, with applicants ranked based on criteria such as equity, historical track record of presenting community programming, lack of access to funding and other resources, and plans to expand staffing or audiences.

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