City Hall Hustle: A Bridge Too Far?

Going batty over street closures

With an event like Batfest, the jokes are self-generating. There's the name and the corporate keep-it-weird ethos, and then there's the close proximity to the Statesman, in case you feel like working in a John Kelso jab there. Not to mention that the sponsors of this event, ostensibly devoted to the little critters, think they're helping by inviting Jurassic rockers (such as Edgar Winter) and the dollar-bin stuffers of tomorrow (such as Flobots) to rock out on the winged-mammals' roof, the Ann Richards Bridge. In my eyes (and ears), that's not support; that's abuse.

But until an 11th-hour resolution, the bats were the least of anybody's worries, as the nascent festival's fourth year arrived with all the velocity of a viscous glob of guano. By proposing, yet again, to shutter a major thoroughfare over Labor Day weekend, Batfest became ensnared in an imbroglio over Austin's ever-expanding Downtown street closures.

For an event to close city streets, the organizers must procure signatures from the surrounding businesses that would be impacted; for admission-charging events such as Batfest, that criteria is 90%, requiring virtually everyone to sign off. So while the Radisson Hotel and the Statesman did so, furniture vendor Your Living Room and ad agency Sherry Matthews Advocacy Marketing didn't. That meant last Thursday, Batfest organizer French Smith came before City Council to request a waiver of the signature requirements; Sheryl Cole, Laura Morrison, and Brewster McCracken obliged by proposing such an item from council. Saying the reluctance of "just one business" can throw the festival "out of whack," Smith said he tried to placate the business owners by stopping the festival area short of their front doors, offering to make them co-sponsors, including them in the festival's advertising, and ultimately, offering them cash ($4,000) to offset their loss of business.

Randi Shade swooped in: "The rules haven't changed since last year and ... we're in the same position as we were last year, where you are asking for the council to take care of a situation that you couldn't get the businesses to sign off on," she said. "They're a furniture store – so the number one day for sales is Labor Day weekend," she pointed out. Conceding that festivalgoers probably didn't make any major expenditures, Smith responded that the festival might bring Your Living Room new customers. Maybe that's how some cross-promotional ads could read: "Batfest – come for the turkey legs; leave with a fivepiece sectional! (Oh, and go bats!)"

Your Living Room's Gege Cordeiro spoke last, lamenting Labor Day weekends past. "We went from doing $20,000 to $30,000, to $5,000 on Saturday [last year], and zero on Sunday. It was very hard for us. And it would be very difficult again this year." She was careful not to beef with the bats, either: "I'm not against any festival; I'm against road closures. I'm against closing Ann Richards Bridge for two full days."

As Smith was already slated to go before council at its next meeting, Aug. 21, to procure separate approval for charging admission, council punted until then, giving Batfest two weeks to get its guano together. But it was clear council was flummoxed with the festival. Recalling a similar argument over Batfest last year, Mayor Will Wynn was agitated that no efforts had been made earlier to resolve the complaints. Moreover, the University of Texas athletic department pointed out to proud Aggie Wynn that the closure occurred on the weekend of the Longhorns' season-opening home game – a conflict which repeats this year. With all that aflutter, Wynn couldn't support the signature waiver – and moreover, it appears, major street closures in general. "The process by which, administratively, folks just filling out some paperwork can shut down major arterials in our Downtown ... I think frankly, we have outgrown that luxury as a community." Lee Leffingwell, currently heading up the city's Downtown Street Event Closure Task Force, concurred. While prais­ing the work of Bat Conservation Internation­al, which benefits from the fest, he said, "To shut down the Ann Rich­ards Bridge, the main street into the city of Austin, Texas, for two full days on a holiday weekend is just something that I find very hard in my mind to justify for almost any event." Making the motion to postpone the item, Mike Martinez said flatly, "You have two weeks to work it out."

Will Batfest get off the ground this year? Or will it drive the council bat-shit crazy? While we were prepared to (ugh) tune in next week, same bat time, same bat channel, a resolution emerged from slumber Wednesday morning: The festival has been moved one bridge west – to the South First Street bridge – where festivalgoers, furniture vendors, and furry winged rodents can coexist in peace.


What's all the flap about? Reach CHH at wdunbar@austinchronicle.com.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

City Council, Downtown, Batfest, Will Wynn, Street Closure

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