Off the Record
By Austin Powell, Fri., May 7, 2010
Beerland's current lease expires upon the completion of the Waller Creek Tunnel Project.
"The landlord didn't want it to go too far into the future because he wanted to keep his options open, in case he got an offer he couldn't refuse," relates owner Randall Stockton. "It's not readily apparent how this development benefits my existing business. It's not like we're going to have this door that overlooks this beautiful scenic creek.
"We're just going to have higher taxes."
That's but one example of the drastic and immediate effect that the Waller Creek Tunnel Project will have on the Red River music scene.
The nearly mile-long, underground stormwater drainage structure, which will circulate water into what is now the Downtown trickle of Waller Creek and thus approximate San Antonio's River Walk, is finally scheduled to break ground in November, beginning with the widening of the Pedestrian Bridge over Waller Creek at Red River and Rainey Street, according to Carolyn Perez of the Public Works Department. Running from Waterloo Park to Lady Bird Lake, the actual tunnel will follow in the second quarter of 2011, along with work on Waterloo Park, which will necessitate the park's closing from 2012 to 2014 (see "Developing Stories," News, Dec. 25, 2009).
Upon the tunnel's scheduled completion in 2014, more than 1 million square feet of land will be removed from the current 100-year floodplain, a zoning designation along Waller Creek that's kept property taxes in the area artificially low given the once-in-a-century possibility of water disaster. Once the existing floodplain has been adjusted, it will greatly increase the value of the area and allow for enhanced redevelopment opportunities. The Waller Creek District Master Plan, a $34.1 million set of community enhancement initiatives for the area, is scheduled to come before City Council on June 10 (see "Developing Stories," News, April 16).
The $127.5 million tunnel is being funded through 2028 by a tax-increment financing district that includes Red 7, Beauty Bar, Plush, Barbarella, Encore, and the Side Bar, among others, a measure approved by council in June 2007 (see "Wallering at Last," News, June 29, 2007). In other words, the increase in property taxes falls directly on the clubs.
"We're coming off the worst year we've had since we've been in business," laments Emo's proprietor Frank Hendrix, one of only two live music venues in the TIF district that owns its building. "The only thing I'm looking forward to is getting ahead."
That's not the case for Stubb's, the other Red River landowner. The venue is eagerly anticipating the tunnel's completion by planning to move forward with its long-delayed renovation project, which includes a new 1,500-person indoor venue and a complete reconfiguration of its outdoor amphitheatre (increasing the capacity to 3,500), neither of which is currently possible due to the amount of flood-proofing involved. In February, Stubb's had to request and was granted a floodplain variance from City Council to retain its existing configuration.
"It's going to be an amazing project for us," enthuses Stubb's creative director Margaret Vera. "Ultimately, when the beautification part of it is completed, to have that be an active corridor for Austin will really tie us to the other neighboring businesses, all the way down to Town Lake."
While Elysium and Valhalla owner John Wickham believes that the property values along Red River will remain relatively low, due in part to what he refers to as the "mixed blessing" of the Salvation Army, Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, and the Austin Police Department headquarters, few others share his optimism.
"I'm excited for any redevelopment that helps with parking and safety, but there's a big difference between cleaning an area and sanitizing it, and I don't think [the city has] done a great job of taking into account the cultural impact and the creative class that's already been developed there," states James Moody of Mohawk, which, like all of the properties on the west side of Red River, falls just outside of the TIF district. "It's the only true music street where you have interconnected venues.
"There's a lot of value to being able to go show to show. They all feed off of each other, and this could have a ripple effect on a lot of things that drive our economy. I don't want anyone to step over a dollar to pick up a dime. If we do it at the expense of Red River, then where does the center of South by Southwest go in the next five years?"
"We hope that the live music venues along Red River remain, as they're an integral part of the Waller Creek success, particularly as we hope to draw students walking and on bikes from the university down to these venues as well as Sixth Street," says Council Member Sheryl Cole, the most prominent city advocate of the tunnel project. "We have designated on the Waller Creek Master Plan a large area for live music venues, but of course this [is] only a plan, and we do not have any control over what a private landowner will do."
For that reason, there may be no light at the end of this tunnel for some Red River venues.
"The people that have been there for a while have done so for a reason," says Heath Macintosh of Red Eyed Fly, which celebrated its 10-year anniversary last September. "This is yet another hurdle, but as renters, we're left a little powerless to our landlords."
Rock City Rejects
Whatever the future of Red River holds, the remnants of its seedier, crack-alley past were miraculously intact and in rare form at Plush last Thursday for the first Blue Flamingo tribute night, a celebratory evening of dank belligerence and chaotic brilliance assembled by Chronicle proofer and former Paranoids drummer Mark Fagan. The Bulemics tore the fan from the ceiling, Lower Class Brats trampled the Big Boys' "Fun Fun Fun," and Fuckemos sucked the entire capacity audience into the maelstrom of its Drano-noise rock. Trail of Dead's Jason Reece and Conrad Keely closed the night with a zip-line intensity not seen in at least a decade, while the Chumps proved anything but with mid-1990s garage-rock anthems "Fuck You, I'm Rich" and "I'm a Chump." "They're actually a lot better and tighter as a live band now," cheered Super Secret Records' head Richard Lynn. "They're not so fucked up on drugs that you wonder if they're going to die onstage."
Good thing the University of Texas' Vice President for Student Affairs Juan González delayed his verdict on the Cactus Cafe until after the last day of school (May 7). UT Chief Financial Officer Kevin Hegarty told the Chronicle that UT President Bill Powers' mandated, universitywide 2% merit pay raise, which was originally cited as the impetus for the venue's closing, may not be possible for the upcoming fiscal year. Then again, reason and common sense haven't been hallmarks of Cactusgate thus far. For the full scoop, see "More Cactus Thorns."
Kat Edmonson, who recently finished recording her second album, is trying her luck in New York this summer. Asked her goals, the local jazz chanteuse succinctly responded, "To grow."
What better way to commemorate Mother's Day on Sunday than with the release party for Sweet Songs at Big Red Sun (1102 E. Cesar Chavez)? The delightful children's music compilation, which was produced by cover girl Sara Hickman, features original compositions by locals Monica Cravotta, Sarah Sharp, Libby Kirkpatrick, and Noëlle Hampton, among others, and all proceeds benefit the Mothers' Milk Bank at Austin.