The Arts District Dance

Council's vote this week on funds for streetscapes for Ballet Austin is a little bit about depleting the city's annual Great Streets fund and a lot about the creation of a performing arts district Downtown

Ballet Austin could be at the center of a new downtown performing arts district. Their neighbors include the soon-to-be renovated Austin Music Hall, the future Austin Museum of Art, and, on Block 21, the future homes of the Austin Children's Museum and KLRU/<b>Austin City Limits</b>.
Ballet Austin could be at the center of a new downtown performing arts district. Their neighbors include the soon-to-be renovated Austin Music Hall, the future Austin Museum of Art, and, on Block 21, the future homes of the Austin Children's Museum and KLRU/Austin City Limits.

Council's vote this week on funds for streetscapes for Ballet Austin is a little bit about depleting the city's annual Great Streets fund and a whole lot about creating a performing arts district in an area of Downtown once known as Mexico.

Ballet Austin has owned the former Aus-Tex Printing building, across the street from the Austin Music Hall, since the bottom of the real estate market in 2002. After laying low for a number of years – fundraising for a major performing arts venue at the Long Center took center stage – Ballet Austin is finally ready to turn the temporary digs for its offices and academy on West Third Street into a permanent home with a fairly modest renovation plan of the existing building.

Given the cachet of one of Austin's major art organizations moving Downtown, the city is more than willing to help, offering to pick up the majority of costs on the required Great Streets program that would widen the sidewalks and add streetscapes to the site. Under the proposed agreement, Ballet Austin would put up $165,000 toward Great Streets, with the city putting another $453,000 into the project. Ballet Austin would pick up any cost overruns. The funds will come out of the city's existing Great Streets budget, which is culled from downtown parking meter revenues.

For many within the city, this is a coup. The mark of most major downtowns is venues or homes for the city's opera, symphony, theatre, and dance company. This puts that process in motion and provides a good neighbor for what could be the city's future main library on the Green Water Treatment Plant site. In this case, the Austin Museum of Art, Austin Children's Museum, Austin Music Hall, and Austin City Limits ultimately will be within walking distance, creating a nice cocoon of art and art-friendly venues Downtown.

And for those who support the west end of Downtown, the deal is especially attractive. At last week's Downtown Commission meeting, Bruce Willenzik, who runs the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar, described how difficult it was to connect the Austin Music Hall on the west end of Third Street to the rest of Downtown, mainly due to the lack of sidewalks and streetscapes to create a continuous pedestrian-oriented footpath down Third. To the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar – and any other event at the Music Hall – a rejuvenated Ballet Austin is going to be a far better neighbor than another faceless, windowless state parking garage.

The funding process for the Ballet Austin project, however, has not been without its hiccups. Ballet Austin is not exactly a Great Streets project. If it had been, Ballet Austin would have seen no more than $100,000 from the city to underwrite it. Project Manager Fred Evins describes the funding as something like a city capital improvement project, one that will be funded with Great Streets money.

The $453,000 is almost half of the Great Streets $1.2 million budget. To people like architect Girard Kinney, who serves on the Design Commission, that's a huge chunk of money the city is sending away on one project, even if it's a good and valued project for Downtown. The plans have been presented in the last week to both the Downtown and Design commissions, both of which agreed to endorse the project after some discussion.

The city also is offering other incentives for the arts nonprofit, such as waiving the fiscal posting on the public improvements, and charging only $1 for the annual license fee for those building elements that are built in the city right-of-way. In return, Ballet Austin agrees to complete its renovation in three years and remain in its location for at least 20 years, possibly making more substantial renovations at some time in the future, Executive Director Cookie Ruiz told the Downtown Commission at its recent meeting.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Ballet Austin, Great Streets, performing arts district, Austin Museum of Art, Austin Children's Museum, Austin Music Hall

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