As most of you probably know by now, several venues in the Red River Cultural District are facing significant issues or outright closures, all stemming from the skyrocketing property value of the area. Today it was confirmed that Holy Mountain would be closing in October and it’s feared that Red 7 isn’t far behind, while Cheer Up Charlie’s and Mohawk continue to square off against the city over the looming construction of a major Hyatt property in the area. Ovrld Visual Editor Carlos J. Matos asked us to publish an open letter to the city concerning the Red River Cultural District. We’ve included it below with the names and info of your city representatives. We ask that you consider going beyond voicing your opinion about what is happening and honor the Red River Cultural District by pursuing civic engagement beyond this situation and take part in musical activism in Austin, or any civic activism period. Our friends at Austin Music People are a wealth of knowledge concerning music-related non-profit organizations in the city (and are an NPO themselves) and would be happy to give you info on where you can help.
June 25, 2015
City of Austin
PO Box 1088
Austin, TX 78767
Dear Mayor, City Council, and City Manager:
I am writing as a concerned citizen and a supporter of the arts in our great city urging you to revoke the status of “special music district” from the 600-900 blocks of Red River Street, so that the area may be brought in line with the reality it currently faces.
As you well know, on October 17, 2013 the 600-900 blocks of Red River Street, which encompasses some of the city’s most iconic and popular music venues including Mohawk, Stubb’s, Cheer Up Charlie’s, Holy Mountain, Red 7, Empire Control Room, Beerland, Red Eye Fly, and Valhalla among others, was designated a premier live music district (the “Red River Cultural District”) in a 7-0 vote by City Council. This was the culmination of a long-term effort by citizen stakeholders and stakeholder groups including the Waller Creek District Master Plan, the Downtown Austin Plan, the Create Austin Plan, and the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan to “advance the promotion and preservation of cultural and/or heritage community/neighborhood districts” that form the basis of Austin’s unique and vibrant culture. The same culture that has made our city such an attractive destination for both arts and commerce, spurring the unprecedented wave of growth we are currently experiencing.
The logic behind this designation, to quote the Downtown Austin Plan and the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, was to “provide incentives and programs for the protection of Red River Street as an authentic live music district” that would “continue to sustain and grow Austin’s successful live music scene, festivals, theater, film and digital media, and other creative offerings.” In other words, to promote the long term sustainability of live music and art as an engine of growth in Austin. And yet, what exactly has changed since the district received its namesake in 2013?
We are now watching as two of the district’s most popular and lucrative venues, Red 7 and Holy Mountain, are being choked out of their respective homes by rent spikes ranging from 45% to 55% plus net fees including taxes, insurance, and maintenance. Holy Mountain, which today announced will be closing its doors in October, is only the first casualty in what is shaping up to be the dissolution of Red River as a hub of live music and culture in Austin.
Likewise, just a few short blocks away Cheer Up Charlie’s and Mohawk are facing the threat of lost revenue and possible closure posed by the construction of a parking garage for the new Hyatt House hotel. Both venues will see their outdoor gathering areas and live music stages encroached upon and reduced by fencing, scaffolding, and heavy equipment for at least 18 months while construction takes place. In the case of Cheer Up Charlie’s, the economic impact could total $20,000 a month in lost sales for that period according to the venue’s owners.
I want to make it clear that I do not speak for any of these venues or their respective owners. I am in no way directly related to their activities outside of supporting them as a patron, nor do I claim to have any expert working knowledge of the issues they face. I do however consider myself a stakeholder for the plain and simple fact that their survival matters greatly to me. Their existence, and the culture they have promoted and nurtured, are among the many reasons I relocated to Austin. I suspect that I am not alone in feeling this way. It seems evident that the 150 or so new people that move here every day are coming, at least in part, because of the unique blend of culture this city offers.
I ask you then, what exactly is the point of declaring this area a special “Cultural District” when its very existence is poised to remain under constant threat for the foreseeable future? There is of course an argument to be made for the landlords and owners of all adjacent land, including the City, and how they are entitled to make whatever business decisions are in their best interest including rent increases, sale, and or lease of their respective spaces. Austin is undoubtedly going through a real estate pricing boom, and these people are well within their rights to profit accordingly. If that is indeed the case, however, and the City finds it fit to allow these venues to be sacrificed one by by one for the sake of short-term gain, then the so-called “Red River Cultural District” exists in nothing but name only.
With every unreasonable rent hike, with every venue that comes under threat, it becomes increasingly clear that this designation is nothing more than a simple smokescreen; a nice-sounding but ultimately hollow declaration allowing our city’s leadership to turn a blind eye to the destruction of live music and art in downtown Austin while claiming to champion our city’s “unique and vibrant culture” as a selling point. With one hand you will praise the virtues of the “Live Music Capital of the World” as a way to attract commerce and growth, and with the other you will allow the same businesses that form the backbone of that uniqueness to be bulldozed over while making way for another hotel or high rise.
I know well the limits of what City leadership can accomplish. I am not asking you to somehow reverse or undo market forces. I am, however, inclined to call out the hypocrisy inherent to the current situation. The City is, in essence, attempting to have its cake and eat it, too. And that is something I cannot stay silent about. If the status quo is to remain, if the venues and other related businesses that form the core of our so-called “special music district” are to function under constant existential threat, then the designation of “Red River Cultural District” should be revoked. I believe this to be the only reasonable and logical course of action in lieu of any genuine and concrete effort to safeguard and promote the existence of Red River as a hub of arts, music, and culture.
Carlos J. Matos
Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that Red 7 was also closing down. That is not confirmed at this time. We have corrected this mistake and apologize for any confusion.