Neighbors, business owners, and the city are all searching for the future of East Sixth Street
Susan Benz moved to ground zero in 2006 when she and a co-investor bought a former grocery store and warehouse at the southeast corner of East Sixth and Medina streets. After eight months of renovations, Benz opened the offices of her construction project management firm, Benz Resource Group, on the lower floor, and she moved in upstairs. To her west – toward Downtown – Benz looks across the street at the wooden fence that marks the edge of the East Side Drive-In. The always-hopping Shangri-La sits on the northwest corner of the intersection; the East Side Show Room is directly across the street from the storefront-style face of Benz's building. Benz also shares her block with the Violet Crown Social Club (formerly the Iron Gate), and Cheer Up Charlie's is just down the way, certainly within amp-shot. Next month, Fader magazine will set up its South by Southwest Fader Fort in what amounts to her backyard.
Benz is what the city might consider the neighborhood's ideal resident. As the treasurer of and Sector Eight resident representative to the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Planning Team, she has a say in the current overall vision for the neighborhood that hosts the recent influx. She could adopt a stiffer resistance, as some of her neighbors have, but – even from her perch in the heart of it all – she takes a measured tone. "In a lot of cases, [live music] is good for our neighborhood," she says. "I think the [planning] team as a whole sees the music venues as a good thing for East Austin."
Not everyone in Benz's neighborhood is as welcoming. Benz is a relative latecomer – someone who might read as a "gentrifier" to some of the area's more established residents. Her point of view also comes with the ability to leave (as she does) when the invading hordes of SXSW visitors descend for a week. Inasmuch as Benz personifies hope, she also represents a classic problem: How does the city balance the economic benefits of a bursting nightlife scene, the change that inevitably comes with it, and the broader needs of the longtime residents who are trying to hang on for the ride? At least one city-sanctioned effort – the one behind the 2001 East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Plan – couldn't wrangle what was coming. And as neighbors, City Council members, and business owners work toward a solution, the further gentrification of the Eastside might just settle things on its own.
Plan or Mistake?
East Austin technically begins at Congress Avenue, where the block numbering starts over. But the 1962 dedication of I-35 added a tangible barrier that became even more pronounced as the entertainment district around the Downtown sections of Sixth Street blossomed into a Mardi Gras-ish economic paradise for its many bar owners. Even into the 2000s, the highway served as a border that few crossed.
By then, the area to the east of the highway and north of Lady Bird Lake boasted its own set of bars, eateries, and so forth that catered to the Hispanic majority that populated the region – which is to say that the racial segregation formalized in the infamous 1928 city plan had persisted into the 21st century. Its undoing – or at least the way it's been undone – presents Austin with a host of new problems even as it offers solutions.
In the late Nineties, city officials began looking for test cases for their Austin Neighborhood Planning Pilot Project. Fifteen neighborhoods submitted applications to be among the first to develop their own visions, within their boundaries, for the growth that was coming. Three groups were selected, including the East Cesar Chavez neighborhood. For the purposes of the effort, the East Cesar Chavez boundaries were set as I-35 to the west, Lady Bird Lake to the south, Chicon Street to the east, and the alley between Sixth and Seventh streets to the north.
Working with city planners, the East Cesar Chavez team began to further divide the neighborhood into types of desired development. Longtime resident Lori Renteria played a key role, and she says the effort ultimately carved the area up into three basic groupings. Everything south of Cesar Chavez would be reserved for residential uses. The area north of Cesar Chavez to south of Fourth Street would be set aside for conditional uses – everything aside from bars, pawn shops, adult entertainment, and auto work. The neighborhood aimed to create an arts and entertainment district north of Fourth Street to its boundary, north of Sixth Street. There were twists and turns and a two-year delay, as virtually every household was surveyed. There would later also be some debate over how so much bar zoning was allowed. Renteria says the cause was an inadvertent typo; one city official calls that possibility "very unlikely." Eventually, the plan was approved in 2001. It is supposed to guide neighborhood development.
The executive summary of the 1999 draft of the East Cesar Chavez plan spells out the neighborhood's hopes: "The East César Chávez Neighborhood believes it is possible to build a strong, healthy, clean and safe neighborhood with a strong sense of its culture and history where its families can continue to grow and prosper." It was a noble if entirely subjective goal; the measure of its success was shellacked in the sort of intangible good will that ensures a healthy debate for the better part of forever.
The draft also included 16 specific goals that run the gamut one might expect from an attempt to redefine – or at least clarify – a collective vision of impending change. Here, the authors offer a mix of preservation through appropriate zoning, calls for improved public transportation and infrastructure, and crime reduction. The East Cesar Chavez plan's motives seem to match the intention of all such efforts: to offer some protection for area residents in the face of impending change. It was in that spirit that lines were drawn on top of the lines that had already been established. Less than a decade later, many of those lines, as well as the good intentions, would be moot.
New Venues, Old Sounds
This is not to say that there weren't bars in the East Cesar Chavez neighborhood before the recent crossover. Indeed, that fact provides new operators with a tool for their conquest: City code allows current CS-1 (the zoning code that allows for a liquor license) operators to retain their zoning status under most circumstances, even as they turn over. "These bars will just flip over from new owner to new owner unless conditions have changed," says Mark Walters of the city's Planning and Development Review department. For example, the space that is now the Scoot Inn is at the corner of Fourth and Navasota. According to its current operators, Kevin Crutchfield and Jim Stockbauer, it's been a bar since the early 1870s. They date the origins of the place's name to 1940, when, as it says on their website, "after a long succession of owners who operated even through the Depression and Prohibition ... Scoot Ivy and his buddy Red opened Red's Scoot Inn."
By 1997, the operator was Vera Sandoval; Crutchfield and Stockbauer took over in 2006. When they did, the old crowd moved out. "All the Tejanos that were hanging out there before quit us immediately," says Crutchfield.
Crutchfield and Stockbauer weren't the only ones to cross I-35. Randall Stockton and his wife, Donya, who also run the Red River-area live music venue Beerland, moved onto East Sixth almost five years ago when they opened Rio Rita. Stockton and his wife would eventually become involved to one degree or another in eight businesses. These include the Sputnik burger shop – which sits where the Good Knight (formerly Club Oriente), another Stockton establishment, used to operate – Liberty, Live Oak Barbecue, Shangri-La, and the Grackle. In 2008, Stockton partnered with former Beerland employee Tyler Van Aken to open Shangri-La. "I don't think we really anticipated when we opened what the Eastside would become and how quickly it would happen," says Van Aken.
Stockton connects the availability of property east of I-35 to the 2008 recession. "The backstory about the gentrification [is that] a lot of these places catered to a lot of people that perhaps were in construction or things like that, and so when the economy took that serious downturn, and there wasn't any building getting done, and so they lost a lot of customers," he says. "A lot of these bars just weren't doing the business that they used to do."
After the Stocktons and Van Aken came the flood. As former Tejano bars continued to change hands and feel, a deluge of new eateries, food carts, and reimagined spaces rose to complement them. Many of the new bars simply took over the leases of the old ones.
Council Member Mike Martinez, a former firefighter, watched the change. "Having worked on the Eastside my entire career with the fire department from the early Nineties until I was elected to Council, I can say that parts of it are much different from when I was first stationed there," he said via email. "I think every neighborhood loses something when it fundamentally changes. There's debate about whether or not that's a good thing."
But Martinez is careful to recall the neighborhood's history, and he declines to characterize the coming of Stockton and his colleagues as something totally new. "You have many bars that have been there for decades – Rabbit's on East Sixth and Chicon has been there for over 40 years. There was the Iron Gate, Daddy O's, Scoot Inn, Primos, La India Bonita, etc. ... all Latino-dominant bars for many years," he wrote. There are differences. "The clientele has definitely changed. Along with the clientele, the format of the bars has definitely changed. You're seeing a lot more patio/outdoor areas, and as a consequence, you're getting more people outside, more sound, [and] more ambient noise."
Stockton, however, points out that the East Sixth venues of old weren't exactly quiet. "When I say that a club was loud, I mean that before Cheer Up Charlie's was there ... you could be out back at Shangri-La and hear Mrs. B's band playing out back. You could be out back at Rio Rita and hear Mrs. B's band. You could be out here on the sidewalk and you could hear the jukebox from Club Oriente," he says. "I don't know if people just didn't police it back then because it was like, 'Eh, it's the Eastside.' Because you sort of get the impression that the old attitude was 'Ah, those folks – whatever.'"
Either way, volume has recently been an issue. "There are some businesses over here that were abusing the sound permit limitations and didn't even have a permit – and then were denied a permit – and they still have outdoor live music very loud across the street from residents," says Benz.
Martinez notes that the sound ordinance – which he has played a key role in developing – was meant to handle this issue. "In making these decisions, we have to balance the single family homes' needs and desires with the new development that's happening at an accelerated pace," he continued. "The sound ordinance sets up a framework for neighborhoods and club owners to talk about impacts and come to a mutually agreed set of terms that everyone can live with. Thankfully, the Music Office has some good folks that can help guide that process along."
Council Member Laura Morrison agreed. "Part of the progress we have made with the new sound permitting process is really establishing the principle of respecting existing uses," she said via email. "If someone wants to put outdoor speakers near existing residents, we need to find ways to mitigate the impact of that sound. Likewise, we are exploring stricter soundproofing standards for residential buildings being built near existing music venues.
"That's why we have the Music Department," she continued. "We want to find ways to foster the music industry by bringing thoughtful solutions to mitigating conflict with existing residents. ... East Austin has strong, vibrant neighborhoods that promote a high quality of life for residents and families. We need to protect that quality of life."
The More Things Change
Cheer Up Charlie's might serve as an example of cooperative progress in this department. After Tamara Hoover took over the space that used to be Mrs. B's, the club applied for and received an outdoor music venue permit. Sound began wafting to nearby neighbors, and, under pressure from at least one group, Hoover invested around $10,000 in a band-shell-like backing for her outdoor stage. Yet neighbor Benz points out the awkward nature of this process. "We've tried to convey to the city and the folks who give the permits and who manage the permits. ... that we, as neighbors, don't want to be put in the position of policing – you know, it's all complaint-oriented," she says.
And it stands to be more so. A focused period of non-complaint-driven police enforcement followed on the heels of an increase in noise complaints throughout Downtown Austin this past fall. Some argued that the Austin Police Department's action represented a shift in tactics, but as of Feb. 20, Austin's 311 system was set to have an automated option for noise complaints. Those complaints will be answered by the city's music office, not APD.
Stockton played a role in the opening of no fewer than four Eastside operations in 2011. With all of the attention, rents went up. At one point, Stockton says, he also looked into taking control of the now very successful White Horse at Fifth and Comal. "I looked at that property ... and I went, 'That rent seems really high.'"
"[I]n the short amount of time in between signing a lease at Rio Rita and signing a lease at the Grackle, rents went up incredibly," Stockton says. "[In] three and a half years, [it] doubled – doubled. ... I don't begrudge anybody that, but that's why you try to negotiate the longest leases you can." Skyrocketing rents in the area suggest another potential outcome, raised by both Crutchfield and Stockton. "I have a feeling that as the neighborhood changes, we're going to get pushed out of there," says Crutchfield.
Martinez compares the situation to the housing market. "Where there are cheaper locations, businesses will migrate," he wrote. He cited Emo's recent move to East Riverside. "Many factors played into their decision to move, but I assure you a driving factor was price per square foot for their business model," he said. "Likewise, what you see today on East Sixth Street are bars that may have come from inside IH-35 or from new investors who were trying to make a go of a business but could not afford the Downtown space."
Stockton provides further evidence. Last year, he pushed farther east, out of the East Cesar Chavez neighborhood and next to the city's best-known drug corner, with the Legendary White Swan at 12th and Chicon.
Even Benz sees her neighborhood already moving past the bar stage. "It is inevitable; I think this part of town is going to develop in the way [that] a lot of close-in neighborhoods like this [do] where it becomes dense residential and small business," she says. If Benz is right, that would eventually reflect the broader vision conceived by city planners in the still-unfinished Imagine Austin comprehensive plan. It could also make soothsayers out of Crutchfield and Stockton.
In December 2008, the city approved a transit-oriented development district for the area around the Plaza Saltillo Red Line station at the corner of East Fifth and Comal. That plan uses the station as an anchor for high-density development through standards that outline preferred construction. Martinez wrote it could be a tool to balance neighborhood needs and those of the bar operators on East Sixth in a way that jibes with Benz's prediction. "As with many other land use decisions, we constantly try to strike a balance between how landowners develop what they legally own and how that development will affect the neighborhood," he wrote. The district "does change that somewhat in terms of what's allowable and what's encouraged. The true intention of [it] is to create high density, transit friendly, live/play friendly environment that speaks to so many of Austin's values. Sprawl prevention, few vehicles on the road, more public transit use (bus, rail, walking and biking) and also maintaining affordability.
"While I think there are some great, vibrant and organic things happening on Sixth Street east of IH-35, I do not think anyone intended or wanted to have such a proliferation of bars," Martinez continued. "We are very mindful of what is happening and we are working to support our local music and entertainment scene, but also preserving our values as a neighborhood and community."
None of these latest developments can undo the changes visited on the East Cesar Chavez neighborhood in the 2000s. Ironically, more than a decade after they first envisioned the idea, Renteria and the East Cesar Chavez team have an entertainment district – just not the one they planned for. "I love to drink my beer," says Renteria. "I miss the $2 beer specials at our little Tejano bars. I think losing the Tejano bars is a big blow to the diversity" of the neighborhood.
Martinez still sees the future of East Sixth as residing in neighborhood hands. "Whether or not the solution for that part of Sixth Street is restoration, preservation or further development needs to be a community conversation and decision," he wrote. "My hope is that we can help those conversations and all share in the future of East Austin and specifically East Sixth.
"The Saltillo District! – that's what I'm calling it," he adds. "And I hope it sticks."