A Kinder, Gentler SXSW?

Can SXSW curb the "spring break crowd"?

A crowd waits in line at the Mohawk last year, a few hours before Rashad Owens drove his car down the same street, kiling four people and injuring several others. (Photo by John Anderson)

Five weeks from today, the city will assume the unenviable task of wrangling and perhaps – at least moderately – shrinking the events surrounding South by Southwest in hopes of increasing city safety and, as the city's Music Program Manager Don Pitts puts it, "getting things back to being about music discovery."

Pitts first publicly addressed the challenge last May, when Austin Center for Events (ACE) staff gathered in the Con­ven­tion Center to detail conclusions wrought from a citizen survey taking stock of March's mayhem. "We're all going to get Webster's Dictionaries and look up the definition of the word 'No,'" he said then. More simply: The days of loose restrictions for the issuance of temporary event permits – permits distributed for events that take place during the weeks of SXSW in venues that don't regularly host parties or performances – are over.

Recent news from ACE indicates that the city plans on saying "no" to 35 more proposed temporary events than it had in previous years of operation. In conversations this week, Pitts said ACE Corporate Special Events Program Manager Bill Manno hopes to cut the total amount of temporary events (including those put on by SXSW itself) from 140 down to 105 – though "it also depends on the specifics of each application." Presumably, he'd be more amenable to making Temporary Event No. 106 an elementary school's bake sale than he would another giant Doritos vending machine filled with some of history's hottest rappers.

Pitts added: "If you're looking at what part of the crowd coming down here that we're trying to address, it's the people who are coming here for the free events and free alcohol."

To that end, ACE announced that it would reinstate standard every-day-of-the-year amplified-sound restrictions for outdoor events as well as temporary ones: a 10:30pm curfew Sunday through Wed­nes­day, 11pm on Thursday, and midnight on Friday and Saturday. Exemptions to extend curfews until 2am remain available for events in brick-and-mortar venues – unless that venue sits within 600 feet of a residential property; then it's 8pm on weeknights and 10pm on the weekend. (The Scoot Inn on East Fourth, which falls in that last category, has a neighborhood agreement that allows for later curfews.)

"We've been very conscious of not wanting to over-cut, or overreact," said Pitts. "We just can't keep the same business model we've held for SXSW through the years. We have to compensate for the changes."

SXSW Managing Director Roland Swen­son wrote via email that the company had no hand in "this specific decision." He added that he hopes a lower cap on the number of temporary permits "will incentivize well-planned events and allow for better planning and use of resources by the city and event producers."

While ACE was working to figure out how best to the facilitate the issuance of temporary event permits, the Austin Police Depart­ment tried to determine the best way to make the circus safer. And while ACE and the Music Office's efforts have been largely to dissuade what many call the "spring break crowd" (those only in town for the party) from showing up, APD has gone about its planning for the festival under the presumption that 2015's edition will be bigger than ever.

Speaking last month at a meeting of the Public Safety Commission, Asst. Chief Jason Dusterhoft revealed that APD plans on increasing the amount of squad cars and officers deployed throughout Downtown: an increase of at least 60 more officers during "key hours" – 2pm through 2am – Sun­day through Thursday, and 120 additional officers all day Friday and Saturday (with half responding to 911 calls and the other half handling various duties relating to code enforcement). APD will also pull "anywhere from 67 units to 87 units" and reassign them Downtown, mostly to serve as barricade reinforcements along Red River and Sixth Street, where police await the eventual installation of retractable bollards.

"We only have 25 marked overtime patrol units, so what we'll probably end up doing is taking resources from other areas," said Dus­terhoft. "This is going to probably include patrol, where we might look at doubling up officers [in various neighborhoods where squad cars have been extracted]." Dusterhoft assured the PSC the change in staffing won't lead to safety issues in surrounding neighborhoods, "but we're going to try to deal with things with the resources that we have."

Dusterhoft said APD plans to use a special response team of 120 officers "who are trained in crowd control" to help ward off any street fighting, and is hoping the installation of 45 new high-powered LED lights on Sixth Street (as well as the repositioning of some of APD's 41 mobile HALO – High Activity Location Observation – cameras) will help further discourage violence. He added that a traffic plan is not yet finalized – the Transportation Department has yet to receive SXSW's proposal – but that APD intends to deploy a quick-response force "staged in certain key locations" to facilitate a steady flow.

Such precautionary measures will be necessary this year, as it's quite possible the Music Office's efforts to curtail SXSW's expansion won't actually bear fruit until 2016. The spring break crowd doesn't come for one specific event so much as for SXSW as a concept. If bands are playing somewhere, people will post everywhere. This year will be all about showing them – politely – they're not as welcome as they have been in the past.

2015 Changes

Music Office
• 25% reduction in temporary event permits
• Reinforcing standard curfew hours: 10:30pm, Sun.-Wed.; 11pm, Thu.; 12mid, Fri.-Sat.
• 2am curfews available only to brick-and-mortar venues applying for a permit

Austin Police Department
• Increased staffing during key hours
• Implementation of special response team trained to handle crowd control
• Additional enforcement team deployed solely for code enforcement
• 67-87 marked squad cars stationed with lights on at all barricaded intersections
• Installation of new LED lights on Sixth Street from I-35 to Brazos
• Increased mobility of HALO cameras throughout Downtown area
• Closing of I-35 access ramps at certain key locations

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SXSW 2015, Roland Swenson, Don Pitts, Bill Manno, Jason Dusterhoft, High Activity Location Observation, Public Safety Commission

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