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The Festival and The City: A Dubious Romance

By Nathaniel Muhler and Meg Frisbie

(The following was originally printed in the PA newsletter in July 2010.  It is an abridged version of a full study).

As the City of Austin negotiates a Downtown Austin Plan (DAP) with the McCann Adams Studio (Formerly ROMA Design Group) it is necessary to consider how architecture and land use play crucial roles in the city’s cultural foundation.  Heralded as the “live music capital of the world,” Austin’s current built environment and small business culture contribute to its international appeal.  This report seeks to characterize how Austin’s existing landscape contributes to the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) music, film, and interactive festivities by surveying and analyzing the location and historic nature of venues associated with the music showcases. 

In researching venues used in SXSW, a central experience in Austin’s music scene and economy, it becomes evident that there is a need for a comprehensive historical survey of the city.  Further, the downtown plan must consider and be sensitive to the current building stock that is sustained by small businesses that, in turn, support the festival. Austin’s music culture might actually depend on the current character of its built environment more than is acknowledged by the proposed Downtown Plan, which aims to manage a growing urban population and increased infrastructural needs.

Internationally recognized and attended, the 24th annual SXSW Festival was held from March 12-21, 2010, and nearly 2,000 musical acts performed throughout the city of Austin.   There is no uniform or comprehensive list of all musical events happening during the 10-day festival, so compiling the SXSW venues required researching internet-based showcase listings and creating a database of venue locations and the building and business types associated with them.  The search yielded 295 places, ranging from traditional venues to bike shops and bookstores throughout the city.  48% of these venues are over 50 years old and potentially historic.

One of the most prominent statistical relationships is the correlation between independent music (bands not affiliated with a major record label) being played primarily in independent businesses throughout the city.  Of the data collected, 83% of the venues hosting showcases could be considered small businesses.  Keeping with Austin’s traditional commercial character, approximately 86% of these businesses were located in small buildings. The initial raw data started to characterize two things: the spatial component that defines the image and experience of SXSW and a common approach of small businesses participating with the diverse spaces they have to offer.  This is especially true for music played outside the purview of the official SXSW organization, which accounts for roughly 70% of the week’s events.  The festival’s character currently is shaped by a certain symbiotic relationship between small independent music and small independent businesses that inhabit Austin’s existing building stock.

These figures and conditions are not static, however, and must be studied in consideration of the imminent downtown plan in progress.  Austin’s current downtown has several micro business districts containing valued local institutions that are not protected by historic designations.  The Red River cluster of venues, Ironworks Bar-B-Q, and parts of Congress Avenue, for example, all host such icons that are in developable zones.  McCann Adams Studio’s proposed Downtown Density Bonus Program provides protection for some commercial districts, such as the E. 6th Street Historic District and a small core of the Warehouse District.  However, these exemptions protect only 15% of the potentially historic buildings in the Downtown area accounted for in the survey of SXSW music venues.  After reviewing the data, it is estimated that more than 60% of the venues in the DAP Core District could be surveyed for historic significance based on building age .   To avoid losing building stock important to Austin’s heritage, a comprehensive  professional survey of downtown historic resources is required to determine what properties should be preserved before a development plan is negotiated.

Though SXSW is the event that contributes the most  to the local economy during the year, the  Density Bonus Proposal makes no special provisions for maintaining City support for small and local businesses in the Central Business District.   This lapse is at odds with an overall goal of the DAP to maintain local/unique businesses and authenticity in Downtown. The lack of attention to small businesses in the Density Bonus Proposal is alarming since the City of Austin posted a “Top Five Priorities” list for downtown development in 2008, which stated that Austin’s downtown should remain as the region’s live music destination and that there should be a strategy developed to focus on local business throughout the district.   The human ecology unique to Austin is not accounted for in the Density Bonus Proposal’s structure which would seem to favor larger business interests to that of the existing small business stock.  Today’s downtown character, rooted in local business and the live music scene, is at risk. 

The Density Bonus Program plan mentions building new live music and cultural venues as a gatekeeper requirement for density bonuses.  It is questionable that old favorite venues such as Antone’s, with natural acoustics and a timeless feel, could be replicated by a commercial developer.  Likewise, it is hard to imagine new luxury housing units will coexist harmoniously next to venues such as Emo’s or Stubb’s.  A seeming random hodgepodge of buildings and businesses actually fosters important economic vitality of our downtown.  The  current Density Bonus Proposal views much of Austin’s downtown grid as ripe with potential for greater density.  Greater sensitivity and selectivity for density and development is required if Austin is to avoid loosing its integrity, authenticity, and commercial diversity.  Austin runs the risk of erasing its internationally praised live music culture from downtown if the city continues to develop any further without deeper investigation as to how its built environment plays such a strong role in providing unique places in which to play.

Meg Frisbie and Nathaniel Muhler are graduate students in Historic Preservation and Architecture at UT Austin.  This study was conducted for a Preservation Planning and Practice Course for Dr. Michael Holleran.

  Alex Geiser, “SXSW Stays Course, Continues Growth,” The Daily Texan, March 18, 2010, http://www.dailytexanonline.com/content/sxsw-stays-course-continues-growth.

  Research included whether or not venues were in the Central Business District, could be considered a “small business,” their general building size, and potential for historic significance. Preliminary judgment of historic significance was based on estimated age of more than 50 years, architectural character, and relationship to surrounding streetscapes. 
  Another layer of information was calculated within the venue database in terms of the association of festival related events  to Austin’s downtown and peripheral districts.  The city’s core, which is  loosely bound by Martin Luther King Blvd., Interstate-35, Lamar Blvd., and Lady Bird Lake,  hosted 62% of the music venues found in this study.  81% of these venues in the core could be considered small buildings in the downtown area. 

  SXSW 2009 Economic Impact Study, prepared by Greyhill Advisors, <http://www.greyhill.com/SXSW%202009%20Economic%20Impact%20Analysis.pdf>
  City of Austin, Downtown Redevelopment, “Downtown Austin Plan – Top Five Priorities,” <http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/downtown.default.htm> 5.