The Austin Chronicle

SXSW Post-Mortem

City report ponders how to contain the "Spring Music Festival"

By Chase Hoffberger, September 12, 2014, News

This year's South by Southwest Music Con­ference & Festival proved the most troubled in the event's 28-year history – and it wasn't because of the grand mass of people that assembled throughout the city. (Complain about the crowds, just remember their tourism dollars.)

Rather, it's a legacy born of the actions of two individuals: L.A. rapper Tyler, the Creator, arrested March 15 for inciting a riot during a daytime Converse/Thrasher party at the Scoot Inn; and Rashad Owens from Killeen, accused of crashing a car through a barricade on Red River Street, killing four people and injuring 20 more.

Two weeks after SXSW ended, City Council called for a full-scale review of the conference and its surrounding ecosystem – a range of concerts, parties, and small-scale festivals known collectively as the "Spring Music Festival." City Manager Marc Ott was initially given 90 days to report back to Council with a series of recommendations that could make the experience safer and more enjoyable.

Last Thursday, two months and two weeks after the original deadline, the city finally issued Ott's report. Spanning 22 pages, the evaluation covers nine talking points, including "event sprawl" and "impact of queuing lines into open streets," but mostly boils down to two key issues: management of the week's many unofficial parties, and the heavy vehicle traffic throughout the conference. There are allusions to specific spaces and proposals that should have a direct effect on festival proceedings next year. Among the most concrete: Expect a shutdown of westbound traffic on Sixth Street under I-35, and at least moderate enforcement of "pedicab corridors."

Expect also earlier curfews at unofficial SXSW night shows, and look for Facebook party invites that read: "At Capacity." Take note of the subtle nod to Tyler's riot incitement at the Scoot Inn in the Austin Center for Events (the city's umbrella permitting office) being given the ability to "shut down venues where representatives or performers are observed inciting actions that compromise public safety," and another reference that screams "Lady Gaga," in which event producers can expect to endure significantly tighter logistical scrutiny in advance of any Downtown event expecting an "internationally-known" celebrity.

SXSW spokesman Bill Miller told the Statesman that Ott's writeup "does not address many of the root issues," but in that regard, Ott's hardly alone. Containing the cultural tsunami that is SXSW remains a conundrum besting the event's and the city's best and brightest planners.

Action items on event management suggest that those hoping to throw unofficial parties this year will face a longer list of regulations for acceptance into an event pool that is likely to get smaller after the paperwork is reviewed. Music Program Manager Don Pitts announced at the report's community-feedback meeting in May: "We're all going to get Webster's Dictionaries and look up the definition of the word 'No.'"

With the help of ACE and the Planning and Devel­op­ment Review Depart­ment, Pitts' Music Office is preparing a thorough evaluation of every application for a temporary event, and promises no automatic approvals for Temporary Event Sound Permits "for events that include a performance and/or alcohol held in parking lots and on outdoor private property in the Central Business District." Fewer day parties? That puts quite an onus on enforcement to close events that couldn't quite manage to spell "permit."

Assuming event "sprawl" can be contained – a big "if," realistically – both day parties and concerts thrown in parking lots and outdoor spaces have actually functioned as pressure-release valves for the ever-growing puzzle of SXSW crowd management. More people coming to town means the city needs more places in which to contain them throughout each day. A downsizing of those functions inevitably results in partygoers left out on the street, trying to get into another party, and creating havoc throughout Austin. The incident at Scoot Inn wasn't the first time Tyler, the Creator caused a scene: his collective Odd Future incited two different riots during 2011's festival – one at an official showcase. The casualties suffered in March occurred not during a day party or unofficial event. They happened on Red River, on a barricaded street outside of an official showcase at the Mohawk.

As demonstrated by APD Chief Art Acevedo saying, in effect, the show must go on after the hit-and-run in March, the city has a clear understanding of SXSW's economic impact on the local economy. The economic impact analysis for 2014 won't be available until Thursday afternoon, after the Chronicle goes to press, but it's a safe bet revenue rose. SXSW can claim responsibility for injecting $190 million into ATX's collective coffers in 2012, and another $218 million in 2013.

Back to the day parties and unofficial night shows – because you have to wonder where people will turn when the party they would have attended shuts down. Kick everyone out and there's spillover onto the street, making traffic control more difficult. That's where Marc Ott's office unwittingly obfuscates the key issue facing municipal management of SXSW: traffic calming. Tens of thousands of people and hundreds of vehicles crammed into Downtown simply don't mix.

Meanwhile, in the 13 staff action items laid out in the city's effort, 12 recommend initiatives that are not yet entirely quantified. Words like "Explore," "Establish," and "Identify" dot the lineup. Time designations are "earlier." The only fully realized recommendations are the aforementioned closing of westbound Sixth Street, and another that will install traffic cameras at various Downtown intersections. The last item anticipates an influx of APD officers "to prevent vehicles from entering blocked intersections."

None of the recommendations address the difficulties surrounding access for delivery trucks and band vans, and the necessities of their maneuverability. And they fail to acknowledge that many of the individuals Owens hit that night weren’t waiting in a concert line, but standing in a blocked-off street.

There's no way to childproof SXSW. This post-event evaluation proves it. You just have to try not to tip that which hangs in a critical balance.

* Correction: the story originally reported that Jamie West and Steven Craenmehr died while traveling along a blocked-off street. In fact, the two were at the intersection of Red River and 11th Street, which was allowing through traffic. That passage has been corrected.

Special Events Ordinance Hearings

The Austin Center for Events (ACE) has been presenting a proposed draft special events ordinance to relevant city commissions; they finish up that process this week with presentations to two more commissions this week:

Public Safety Commission: 4pm Friday, Sept. 12, Town Lake Center, 721 Barton Springs Rd.

Music Commission: 6:30pm Monday, Sept 15, Austin City Hall Boards and Commissions Rm.

The "SXSW 2014 Post-Evaluation Report" is posted with this story online.

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