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Citing construction concerns, city indefinitely extends moratorium on new street events

Thursday, October 19, 2023 by Chad Swiatecki

The city has indefinitely extended a long-standing moratorium on street events in response to the large number of private development and infrastructure projects slated for downtown and beyond in the coming years.

A memo released last week by José Roig, director of the Development Services Department, and Richard Mendoza, interim director of the Transportation and Public Works Department, informed City Council that the moratorium first established in late 2014 needs to remain in place. The Austin Center for Events was also involved in the decision and supports the extension.

Street closures and other logistical needs for various construction projects were identified as the main causes of the extension, along with the need to preserve quality of life for the growing number of residents living in residential towers downtown. Along with the expansion of Interstate 35 and Project Connect’s prolonged construction schedule, the memo lists 69 residential or commercial building projects taking place downtown through at least 2026 as well as another 13 public works projects.

The most substantially impacted area of the moratorium is bounded by Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to the north, Oltorf Street to the south, MoPac/Loop 1 to the west and Chicon Street to the east.

The moratorium doesn’t mean a total ban on all new events involving streets, as the memo notes: “Exemptions for smaller events as allowed by applicable safety guidelines may be granted based on review by the TPW Director and ACE Program Manager. First Amendment/free speech events will not be affected and will still require review by ACE staff so that we may make the appropriate safety preparations. Events outside the downtown core will also continue to be permitted as long as the Austin Center for Events has adequate staffing to facilitate the events and all safety precautions are met.”

One other high-profile exception was the approval earlier this year of closing portions of Congress Avenue for parts of multiple days in April to accommodate concerts held in coordination with the CMT Music Awards that took place at the Moody Center. Those closures could take place again next year since the event has announced its return to Austin in 2024.

James Russell, executive director of the Trail of Lights Foundation and a consultant for the CMT Awards, said making the moratorium indefinite removes the uncertainty for applicants and staff who otherwise would have to navigate construction schedules that can change unexpectedly.

“It’s been in place for quite a while, and every year they would kind of reissue it… so making it indefinite is just skipping that step. I do appreciate that they notated that administratively they could be lifted for events that come in with a solid plan and have little to low impact,” said Russell, who also served on the city’s Special Events Task Force, which had its recommendations on event management adopted by City Council earlier this year.

“The moratorium makes good sense simply because there is a ton of stuff going on and at the end of the day, you have to get down to day to day. Quality of life, both for commuters and residents and folks that are trying to get to their office building or get home, wherever it is they live. And that construction certainly doesn’t help.”

Cindy Lo, a former member of the Special Events Task Force and CEO of the events companies RED VELVET and Strong Events, said street-based events have become less common in Austin in recent years, causing venues to absorb that business and increase their rental rates accordingly.

“(The interest) is usually around already something that’s happening in town. So, for example, South by Southwest, ACL weekend, F1, because they basically want to try to get their brand out there while there’s already a lot of people in town. … But would they choose a random time in November? Probably not,” she said.

“Austin unfortunately has proven to be a pretty expensive city to activate. So when they’re comparing us to New York or Chicago, even though their weather is not as ideal, they’re cheaper than us and they’re easier to work with.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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