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Armed With Cash, Group Looks to Encourage Arts Spaces Among Developers

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT
Protesters gathered to speak out against a Hyatt development near Cheer Up Charlies in 2015.

From the Austin Monitor:

The Austin Creative Alliance will step up its efforts to encourage developers to carve out arts spaces in Austin thanks to a gift that is expected to fuel a five-year push at City Hall and throughout the city.

The group announced the $100,000 gift from a local financial planner and theater supporter at the ACA Honors event on Wednesday night. The money will be used to fund staffing, grant writing and research on an effort that could cost as much as $500,000 and result in a community arts space created by the group.

The biggest push will need to come at the city planning level. John Riedie, CEO of ACA, said he hopes to encourage updates to planning and zoning requirements so that developers have incentives to provide spaces for theaters, music venues and other creative uses at below-market rates.

Many arts stakeholders and politicos in Austin see the city’s hot real estate market as a genuine threat to the viability of arts venues that are gradually being priced out of their longtime homes. The recent uprooting of Austin’s Salvage Vanguard Theater and the Tapestry Dance Company speaks to that problem, and in a recent survey, ACA found that 52 percent of live music venues in Austin expect to be priced out of their current locations when their leases come up for renewal.

The ACA’s Creative Infrastructure Initiative has three stated goals: building partnerships among developers, arts groups, the local tech community and neighborhoods; driving consensus on policies to encourage creative infrastructure; and developing plans worthy of larger community investment.

If the initiative kicks into full gear, Riedie and his group will be busy: He recently floated the idea of putting an arts bond to fund more creative spaces in front of voters. That, however, wouldn’t happen until 2018 at the earliest.

In a press release about the infrastructure effort, the group offered some details about an in-progress pilot program with the developer of an East Austin condominium complex who is moving toward providing below-market arts space in the building’s footprint.

Riedie declined to name the developer or provide any more specifics because the deal is still being discussed, but he said conversations with about a dozen prominent Austin developers have revealed an interest in arts space creation, especially if the city would provide some entitlements for developers who incorporate creative use into their projects.

“Some are really receptive to including creative space in what they’re doing, but you’ve got to make the case to them for why it’s to their benefit,” he said. “I’m optimistic from the conversations I’ve had, like when I met with Gary Keller at All ATX. It was something he’s very interested in.”

Keller, a real estate mogul, is the founder of All ATX, a local nonprofit that focuses on business education for musicians and the funding of nonprofits that provide health care and other services to Austin’s musicians. He also made news recently for purchasing the South Lamar Boulevard property that includes the Saxon Pub live music venue, ensuring the club won’t be forced to move due to rent increases or redevelopment.

As for what carrots the city could dangle to spur a wave of new galleries, theaters and more, Riedie said variances on building height and density would be obvious starting points, as would the option to fast-track projects that are friendly to creatives. That move could make a real difference, because developers say the typical two-year lag between property acquisition and when a project starts generating revenue – blamed most often on the city’s backlogged planning and building departments – adds significantly to the carrying costs of a project.

And there’s also the long-term benefit of the way clubs and theaters tend to quickly improve the livability of an area and increase property values and rental rates as a result.

“If you’re a patient investor, arts and music can make you money in the building world,” Riedie said. “Just look at what Salvage Vanguard did to that area of Manor Road, but now it’s gone. You see the value in the area around (creative spaces), and if you develop an apartment building that has an Off Center theater on the corner, that is going to add a lot of value to what you’ve done.”

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