After the (SXSW) Party: Where's the Fire?
Party shutdowns unleash backlash against SXSW
Since opening their South Congress boutique FactoryPeople nearly four years ago, Le and Thomas Popov have thrown parties at the store including large fetes planned to coincide with the Austin City Limits and South by Southwest festivals. With the help of corporate underwriting, they book musicians, stock up on booze, and hire off-duty Austin Police officers to handle security and crowd control. Although not officially affiliated with either festival, says Le Popov, the FactoryPeople parties have always come off without a hitch until this year. About an hour into a March 15 SXSW afterparty, at around 12:30am, an Austin Fire Department marshal showed up and shut down the fun.
The problem, the Popovs learned, was that they didn't have a "change of use permit" or "public assembly" permit. In essence, city ordinance requires anyone seeking to transform a public space from one use to another in this case, from a retail space that sells clothing into a party space or a music venue, if just for one night to get a permit to do so, in order to address issues of fire safety. The ordinance has been on the books since January 2006, essentially to regulate fraternity parties, which had rarely incorporated fire-safety measures. Fire Department inspectors make a site visit to review what measures, if any, need to be undertaken in order to make sure the new use complies with the city's fire code.
When the fire marshal arrived at the store that Thursday night, there were nearly 300 partygoers in the store well above the 49-person occupancy allowed without the change-of-use permit. The party was shut down, and the Popovs were issued a $500 citation. The Popovs were not pleased: "By all accounts, it was the smoothest party we'd ever run, and we were ecstatic," Le says, making the shutdown all the more painful. Le says she and her husband tried to find a way to bring the party into compliance on the spot as, for example, getting the marshal to agree that the party could go on if the two APD officers on site agreed to be on "fire watch" but nothing worked. "It was a very contentious exchange," Le recalled. The marshal "was not there to figure out a way [for us] to be compliant; he was there to shut us down."
The Popovs' FactoryPeople party wasn't the only event of its kind to be shut down by the AFD but it was one of just three that the marshals busted because the event lacked a change-of-use permit (the other two were Franki Chan's Friday night IHeartComix party at Blue Genie and a smaller rooftop party on West Sixth Street). Organizers at seven other venues mainly warehouse spaces on the Eastside applied for and received the change-of-use permit, said Assistant Fire Marshal Don Smith. In all, says Smith, the AFD issued just nine citations during the week five to venues that exceeded their occupancy load, one for not having a load card, and three for failing to obtain the public-assembly permit.
Considering that the marshals made more than 300 inspections during the week, nine citations is remarkably few the shutdown parties seemingly would've merited little more than a footnote to an otherwise successful week. But when word got out that SXSW officials had printed out a list of 80 or so parties not affiliated with SXSW and had provided the list to the Fire Department, the nonevent took on a life of its own, and with help from a handful of bloggers and the Statesman, says SXSW Director Roland Swenson suddenly the permit issue had morphed into a conspiracy theory that SXSW wanted the parties shut down as "competition" and put out of business.
While SXSW officials did print out a list of parties for the fire marshal, it wasn't done to target anyone in particular, says Swenson, or as an official "complaint" about any particular party. "As an overall complaint about the Fire Department not inspecting events other than ours, yes," it was a complaint, he says, an attempt to make sure that every event those affiliated with the Festival and those that aren't was subject to the same safety standards. In fact, says Swenson, he was "as surprised as anyone that [the three parties in question] were shut down, because I thought they would've had all their shit together." Nonetheless, that Festival officials had given the list to the marshals quickly became blog fodder, unleashing a torrent of anger directed at SXSW as a "faceless [corporate] monolith" up to no good, Swenson says. Ultimately, though, Swenson says that while Festival organizers "try to protect and even control [the Festival] to make it work," the bottom line is that city ordinances and permit requirements are in place to ensure that events are as safe as possible.
If something bad were to happen like, say, a fatal fire at a club or party, akin to what happened at the Station nightclub in Rhode Island several years ago (where 100 people died in 102 seconds, says the AFD's Smith) the tragedy would be forever connected to SXSW and Austin, whether or not it happened at an official SXSW event. And of those who slag Festival officials for playing party pooper, Swenson says, "It's about a lack of knowing history, really. A lot of the people most worked up don't remember the first time the Fire Department cracked down on South by Southwest, in 1991." That year, marshals shut down numerous official SXSW venues, he said, which prompted a noisy public backlash directed at SXSW.
The 1991 crackdown ultimately had a positive effect, said Swenson, by teaching Festival organizers that working with the fire marshal is imperative to putting on a safe and successful event. "So that sort of created our 15-year history of working with the fire marshal to ensure all clubs are performing to code," Swenson says. And that's exactly the kind of outcome that city officials hope will come from this most recent controversy, says Assistant City Manager Mike McDonald. He met with the Popovs last week to discuss how the city can help party planners better navigate the permit process: to improve the city's Web site, to dedicate space to answer questions about party permitting, and to place ads in various local publications during busy times before SXSW and around the winter holidays that explain "here's the things to take into consideration" when planning a party, he said. McDonald says the city and SXSW officials have gotten to the point where planning and safety concerns are discussed well in advance. "It's not that [SXSW] is getting any favoritism," McDonald says. "Over the years they've [simply] learned exactly what needs to be done."
In the end, Le Popov says she's also happy with the way things have worked out: "I'm feeling good with what we know now," she says. "The nice thing is A) nobody was hurt, and B) [we realized that] the players that are involved in all this really do have the best interest of everyone at heart."