Downtown Street Event Closure Taskforce report

Missed in the run-up to the holidays 2: Thursday 18th December saw the Austin Downtown Street Event Closure Taskforce[1][2] report back to the full City Council.

Area considered by the Task Force

Area considered by the Task Force

I had attended the four of the first five or so meetings, including the infamous “Conely mob” meeting on August 11th. At that meeting, an innocent request to get a few sports events participants to some of the meetings, got out of hand in an “Internet connected world” sort-of way, and a hundred or so showed up at one meeting, leaving no standing or sitting room and a lot of disgruntled attendees.[More on this later].

After about a 6-meeting gestation, bi-weekly meetings, went weekly. The task force was co-led by RunTex owner Paul Carrozza, and local political grandee and former Democratic U.S. representative, Jack Hightower, with assistant City Manager Rudy Garza accompanied by a city staff from Parks and Recreation and other effected depts. as well as Lt. Boydston, APD Special Events Unit and other safety related groups to advise. Also heavily involved in the process(from my observation) was Larry Shooler, Policy Director for City Council Member Lee Leffingwell.

However, staff were there primarily as advisors, the bulk of the work was done by the task force members. For those of us from the public that did show up, there was a limited opportunity for people to speak for 3-minutes before the start of the meetings. After that it was down to the old game of passing short notes to task force members on specific points during meetings, a frustrating experience at best. Mid-way through the process the task force seemed to be getting bogged down, lack of clear definition and the [obvious?] groupings for and against events, seemed to be stopping reasonable progress. I also missed about 5-meetings.

It was then with some surprise when I attended the last two meetings. The task force had come up with a good set of recommendations. Seemed to have pulled together some key threads. Presentation of these on the 18th was pretty straight forward with a number of the Task Force members, Shooler and Garza present along with the full council.

The key points and focus areas were:

  • Issues/Challenges
    • Events in “downtown” up from 110 in 2005 to 145 in 2007
    • Number of downtown residents estimated to almost triple between 2000-2010
  • Event Frequency, Number, Variety, Scheduling, Capping etc.
  • Application Approval Process and Timeline etc.
  • Set Race Routes, Street and Building Access etc.
  • Financial Cost/Impact and Event Fee Structure
  • Political Events and Parades were not in-play for the Task Force

And a large number of issues and concerns related to these. From which the Task Force made the following recommendations, presented by Carrozza to the City Council.

  • Create Office of Special Events (OSE) to report to the City Manager’s Office
  • Create Special Events Advisory Commission
  • Create a “no event” zone around 5th/6th Streets to provide open access
  • There should be a no-entrapment rule, all events should provide alternate access
  • Walks should be held in a “moving bubble” rather than blocking streets
  • There should be a cap on events at current levels
  • Timeline for Event submission and review changed from 60 to 210 days prior to the event
  • Events getting 20% or higher objections are referred to Special Events Advisory Commision
  • Organizers must have approved application before marketing events
  • Traffic plan inc. alternate access must be finalized earlier

Of these, when you look at it, the Cap was perhaps most feared by the event community. The problem is that each event community has their own, blinkered view on the disruption caused by their events. Limited by their events own geographic boundaries. What they don’t see is the big picture. The problem is that under the current scheme, nor does anyone person or department in the City, since different types of events are currently permitted and approved through different depts. So while you could take 145 events, and say thats almost 3-every weekend. It isn’t, sometimes it is more, sometimes less, and there are the inevitable clashes which don’t become apparent until Road Closures are processed, sometimes long after the events are approved.

For such a relatively small downtown area, often using public roads, 145 events as a cap seems more than enough. One of the key recommendations of the task force was to tier races and to find and encourage other great parts of the City. This both spreads the benefit and the burden. The continued, unbridled growth of events in the downtown district was perhaps the greatest concern of the non-events stakeholders, including residents, businesses, Churches etc. all of whom suffer regular disruption, which is currently left to the best will of the event organizer to minimize.

The “no event” zone was referred to as both the “Equator” and the “Red Sea”. Using the former designation, it was envisaged that the “Red Sea: would part on Congress for no more than six “grandfathered” events. Other events could start north or south of 5th/6th St but not cross or close them. So You could have a 5k race that went south from 4th, down Chavez, and loop back around, but it couldn’t cross or close 5th/6th, likewise a Walk could start on or north of 7th but not cross or close 5th/6th.

Final recommendations were around the City’s ability to understand, plan, budget and grant waivers for events. Currently there is no clear process, or understanding of the cost or benefit for events, and no tracking or post event evaluation is done to see if event organizers meet their commitments, and if waivers for closures and fees etc. are justified. There is also some work to be done on various ordinances if these recommendations are to become the norm.

The council meeting wrapped up with questions from council members. There were few. Members Leffingwell and Martinez both raised the point of citizen input. This was accepted, and the job is now on staff to turn the recommendations into proposed policy.

As part of that process, and in review with council, it’s clear that a broad coalition of event organizers and participants, and NOT just those from the sports community, need to review and provide feedback, as well as the neighborhoods, including mine Bouldin Creek, and the businesses and other effected parties. It’s our city and its also the events, from art, to music, and sport, are what make downtown Austin the small village it is, in a Capital city.

[1] “Downtown is defined by MLK to the north; Oltorf to the south; I35 to the east; and Lamar to the west.
[2] Minutes, Mission Statement, and full member list(although not including their alliances) can be found on the city website, here.

4 Comments so far

  1. odoublegood on January 1st, 2009 @ 1:36 pm

    Thank you for writing about this. Did anyone discuss the matter of closing bridges? I think that this is a matter of public safety and think that EMS, APD, and AFD should be consulted in detail. Also, whether or not this is supposed to occur, there have been occasions when pedestrians have been barred from crossing a bridge, which is a great hardship, especially when the weather is hot. Anecdotally, there are a lot of accounts of disruption for business, and I know that these days, more weekends than not, we’re unable to make our customary downtown rounds because of events. There’ve been times, also, when Capital Metro either has not been informed or has been informed and has not furnished detour information early enough and in sufficient detail. How is it, if you know, that "downtown" has been defined for these purposes as south of the river at all and what are the pluses and minuses, in your view, of extending the south "downtown" as far as Oltorf? Again, thank you for your account; it’s the most information-rich one I’ve come across.

  2. triman on January 6th, 2009 @ 9:08 pm

    Yes, the bridges were fully considered as part of the process, and the APD, EMS were full participants. I agree about pedestrian access to the bridges, at least S 1st has no reason not to remain open. Not sure about Congress. Do you have specific examples? It would be useful to pass them on.

    Clearly the businesses and the Churches have concerns about access and closures, and I get the impression that their complaints started the whole process off. My comment about the scope of "downtown" was taken from the terms of reference for the Events and Street closure taskforce. No more than that. The extended definition of "downtown" also came up on the BCNA Yahoo group, so I clearly in my definition I should have added "for the purpose of this taskforce".

    If downtown had just been downtown, or north of the river, then it would have just put more pressure on south of Town Lake. Many events already extended down to Oltorf, and they are BIG events, like CapTex Triathlon, and the Marathon etc. and so it was reasonable to include the areas covered by those events. This would also be true for all those non-athletic events that use Auditorium Shores, and even Zilker Park are impact the roads, bridges and neighborhoods and so again, its right that the areas they effect were included.

    The recommendation to move the planning and approval much further out should help all concerned, including Capital Metro. The real challenge starts now, I’ve asked Larry Schooler to keep me in the loop as things progress. I’m actually pretty interested as a participant, a former event organizer, and obviously a resident of Bouldin Creek, in how city staff turn this taskforce recommendations into actions/policy.

  3. odoublegood on January 10th, 2009 @ 1:57 pm

    I (and others, I’ve been told) was refused pedestrian passage by the for-profit "Bat Fest" whether by some officious person with wrong information or just by design. I’ve paid taxes to have the Congress bridge redone three times and I think that I and all taxpayers should be able to walk across it without paying, since it’s the quietest and safest and closest means to cross the river. It would be easy enough to block off the sidewalks for free passage and use only the vehicle lanes for those who wish to pay these promoters. It is a great hardship for those who live close to the bridge to be denied pedestrian access to it.

  4. South 1st Watch | Austin Metblogs (pingback) on January 17th, 2009 @ 4:55 pm

    […] my report on the “Downtown” Event and Street closure task force, I took some flak from neighborhood folks for describing the area from Town Lake to Oltorf as […]

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