Last week, I attended my first Downtown Commission meeting as the newest appointee of the Mayor and City Council. This appointment was a result of my status as the Vice Chair of the Austin Music Commission, so it should go without saying that I plan to represent the heart of our city, particularly Downtown, which is live music.
One of the most dire and urgent issues our Downtown area is facing is the rapid decline of our urban core as the center of live music establishments in Austin. Several establishments along both the west side (e.g. Momo’s) and east side (e.g. Emo’s) have closed in recent months and left a giant hole in our musical portfolio. Emo’s and Beauty Bar have both relocated to East Riverside, planting their flags in what will soon become a popular district on the outskirts of Downtown. Momo’s, like Katz Deli, simply couldn’t afford to keep operating with Downtown rents being the way they are.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that we still have Stubbs, the C3-operated venue with a stellar reputation, and Mohawk, the Transmission-operated venue with the most consistently dynamic booking record in Austin. With those companies operating at bigger and bigger levels each year, led by ACL Festival and Fun Fun Fun Fest respectively, their venues should stand the test of both time and the ensuing Waller Creek development. Red River may not have a dozen venues in 5 years, but it still has the foundation to remain the most important live music street in America. I can say that confidently because whether you’re an emerging band looking to breakout during South by Southwest, playing at a small venue like Head Hunters or Swan Dive, or a major act swinging through Stubb’s or Mohawk on your way East from Coachella, you’ll likely have a home base on Red River, which years ago replaced Sixth Street as the musical heart of Downtown Austin.
Add in The Parish, the most legitimate venue on Sixth Street, Antone’s on West 5th, and ACL Live at the Moody Theatre – the crown jewel of Austin’s indoor venues that has hosted Jay-Z and Radiohead in the last two months alone - and you have a solid roster of venues that give Austin a starting five that tops just about any city’s in America. But we’re losing our bench.
Well, if there’s anything we know about Downtown Austin it’s that a) people are moving there (see chart below), b) rent is increasing and c) live music is the top, not among the top it is the top, cultural asset that the City has to offer. No offense to the cultural arts downtown, the clothing boutiques along 2nd Street, the bar scene and the restaurants, but live music is the alpha of Downtown Austin. Ripping out the alpha in Austin would be like ripping Austin out of Texas; things would only get worse from there.
So, no, Governor Perry, we don’t have you to thank for Texas’ stellar economy in comparison to the other states. We have cities to thank. San Antonio, Houston and Dallas are all outpacing other major U.S. cities in terms of net population growth, unemployment rates, job growth and affordability.
And it just so happens that the city I love and live in, Austin, outpaces them all in about a million categories of merit. This is why whoever said Austin would be the best city in America for the next decade was spot on.
But there are other risks facing Downtown besides the tenancy of live music establishments. As I serve on the Downtown Commission, I plan to bring forth my perspective on the following issues to ensure the City Council and Mayor are fully prepared to do what it takes to keep Austin thriving, keep our Downtown roots in place, and position the City for the future rather than diminishing returns on our past:
- The extension of our Downtown perimeter. I understand that the traditional barriers of our Downtown core are Lamar to the West, Martin Luther King to the North, I-35 to the East and Cesar Chavez to the South. That doesn’t mean this truly reflects what Downtown living is. We need to have an open and honest discussion about the outer shell of Downtown Austin and what steps need to be taken, particularly on the East Side and South side (e.g. South Congress, South Lamar), to make our city more connected and livable for Downtown residents and outer-Downtown residents who don’t want to have to get in their cars every hour to be productive.
- Which leads me right to public transit. I had a good conversation with a good friend from my political days in DC the other day about transit in Austin. I know I’ve talked about this a good bit, but I do believe rail will ultimately be our solution. But that doesn’t mean we have to start there now. If rail is too hard for some people to wrap their heads around, perhaps we can start with lower hanging fruit. Like getting a much more effective taxi cab system in Austin, particularly on weekends and around events. Uber-Taxi would be a great addition to our city. Car2Go, ZipCar, whatever else is needed should be encouraged through multi-modal transportation initiatives. Also, we should up-level our bus service to emphasize on-time arrivals/departures and cleanliness. In some cases, we may want to provide a financial incentive – perhaps through Austin Energy – for residents who use the bus system. Despite CapMetro’s reputation, our bus system is the best option we have today and we must choose to support it or replace it.
- Livability and connectivity between Downtown residents and outer-Downtown residents. If you live along South Congress, South 1st, South Lamar, Barton Springs, the UT Campus area or anywhere East from Riverside to MLK and within a mile of I-35, you should have the ability not only to get Downtown without a car on a rainy day, but you should also have multiple options to buy groceries, get dry cleaning done, go to the Post Office, etc. If the City is going to continue filling our Downtown area with more condos, offices and restaurants, we should focus on rounding out the Downtown experience from sunup-to-sundown. The Trader Joe’s announcement is a start, but we still have a long ways to go to truly make Downtown Austin comparable to the livability experienced in other great cities. On that note, I think the word "retail" should only be used on development projects like this if they actually mean retail. I heard some developers use the word interchangebly with restaurants during my first meeting and it pissed me off. This City has a ton of great restaurants and no lack of talented chefs and investors lined up to open new ones. What we lack is major retail. Second Street District has benefitted by the Urban Outfitters I'm sure, but more is needed. What about places like Uniqlo, H&M, Allsaints, Topshop...why aren't we recruiting them to our downtown for these "retail" spots? Bring their planners to SXSW and show them how amazing this city is for retail.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers. Hell, I probably don’t even ask all the right questions yet. But I am super passionate about Downtown Austin because it’s the most important cultural hub of Texas, period. What happens with Downtown Austin will pave the way for what happens in Texas’ other major cities, which will pave the way for what happens with our state, overall. And, if you’ve paid any attention, our state tends to have a lot of impact on the rest of the nation.