Don Pitts

A street performer performs on Sixth Street during SXSW. On Thursday, Austin City Council withdrew a proposed amendment change to city code that would have limited street performers from “playing musical instruments and making noise that is plainly audible” and soliciting after 1 a.m. in the city’s entertainment districts.

Photo Credit: Marshall Tidrick | Daily Texan Staff

Austin’s street performers, or buskers, are waiting for more clarification on their rights after Austin City Council decided not to vote on city code amendments Thursday.

The Council withdrew a proposed amendment change to city code that would have limited buskers from “playing musical instruments and making noise that is plainly audible” and soliciting after 1 a.m. in the city’s entertainment districts.

Don Pitts, music program manager of the Economic Development Department, said city staff and the Music Commission agreed 1 a.m. was a good cutoff time.

“The current curfew is 10 p.m.,” Pitts said. “Staff agreed with the Music Commission that since the Entertainment Districts have a sound curfew of 2 a.m., conventional wisdom would allow a curfew more in line with the entertainment districts [including Warehouse and Sixth Street].”

The proposed amendments were pulled from the Council’s agenda Thursday after a lack of support from stakeholders, Pitts said.

Street performers run the risk of arrest because the city code is unclear, according to Linsey Lindberg, who regularly performs and busks. Police officers often ask performers to show a permit or move along.

“Right now, it’s so vague that cops can shut you down at their own discretion,” Lindberg said. “Sometimes they’re fine, but, other times, they’d rather not deal with you. The cops still have the right to arrest you if they feel you are being disrespectful and breaking the rules.”

Pitts said any amendments to city code regarding buskers need to clarify buskers’ rights and outline the ways they might potentially violate city code.

“It’s putting [Austin Police Department] in a precarious spot to be enforcing something so gray,” Pitts said. “I was not for the permit process for a long time, but it’s a way for us to protect buskers. There just needs to be some code on who is enforcing it. Nothing too subjective or that leaves stuff up to interpretation.”

APD Lieutenant Christian Malanka said APD employs the lowest level of enforcement appropriate for an offense committed by a busker.

“We most often secure voluntary compliance, but will issue citations for repeat offenses,” Malanka said. “In the rare occasions we have made arrests of street performers, the arrest was the result of outstanding warrants, and not violation of the solicitation or noise ordinance violation.”

Sofia Dyer, a Plan II and Russian, East European, and Eurasian studies sophomore, offers mind-reading sessions on South Congress. She performs as “The Girl Who Knows,” a mentalist who predicts what objects audience members are holding, or chooses the correct card  passersby draw from a deck. 

“One of the challenges of street performance is it can be very difficult to get people to stop,” Dyer said. “Pedestrians on the street are usually going somewhere. Most of the time, they didn’t come out to see you perform for 20 minutes.”

Lindberg, better known as “Mama Lou Strongwoman,” works as a liason between buskers and the Council to advocate for street performers. She said she feels City Council is doing their best to balance busker rights with concerns from people of the city. 

“Buskers aren’t just people who are trying to make enough money to eat dinner, but truly artists in Austin,” Lindberg said.

The City of Austin’s music division allocated $750,000 in order to discover creative, affordable sound mitigation approaches for local outdoor music venues, said City of Austin’s music program manager Don Pitts.

The allocated funds are for the development of the Venue Assistance Program (VAP), which will help qualifying outdoor music establishments contain their sound levels, Pitts said. VAP will provide low-interest loans to fund sound technology and architectural solutions to qualifying outdoor music venues. He said the case studies estimated completion date is July 2012.

The city’s current sound ordinance states a music venue can produce up to 85 decibels, he said.

Although most venues are in compliance with the ordinance, nearby residents are still impacted by the loud noise from the outdoor music venues, Pitts said.

The city allocated $40,000 for VAP’s first case study at Cedar Street Courtyard, an outdoor music venue located in Fourth Street’s Warehouse District, Pitts said.

Cedar Street Courtyard corporate manager Jason Schnurr said the venue agreed to match the funds given by the city because the program is an attempt to bring together music venues and nearby businesses and residences to address the problem of loud noise.

“Noise complaints become prohibitive when running a business,” Schnurr said. “As new residential towers get constructed, the complaints are rising.”

The technologies tested at Cedar Street Courtyard will lay the groundwork for case studies at other local music venues, Schnurr said.

Pitts said in order to be considered for a case study, a music venue must be in compliance with the sound ordinance, generate noise complaints from nearby residents and hold its lease for a certain number of years. Schnurr said the music venue must have at least 100 noise complaints to be considered by VAP.

Public relations sophomore Elizabeth Fleet lives near the downtown Austin area and said she thinks VAP will bring positive change.

“It’s a good thing for the residents living closer to the downtown area,” Fleet said. “The loud music sometimes distracts me from sleeping or studying.”

Government sophomore Payton Mogford said he thinks a sound limit could be a bad idea because the music industry and Sixth Street are major aspects of Austin’s economy.

“If we took the loud music aspect away, Sixth Street would not be the same, making Austin a little bit less weird,” Mogford said. “If downtown residents complain, they should have thought about loud noise before choosing to live there.”

Pitts said other bars that are in compliance with the sound ordinance but are receiving citizen complaints, are potential future case studies after Cedar Park Street Courtyard.

“The best sound mitigation is common sense, being aware of your neighbors, booking appropriate acts and taking a proactive approach such as hiring an acoustical consultant, taming hard reflective surfaces and using optimum speaker placement and design,” Pitts said.

Printed on Friday, April 27, 2012 as: Austin conducts case studies in reply to noise complaints

Texas is the first state affected by the BP oil spill to use settlement money from a BP investor for habitat conservation efforts, leading to more coastal restoration attempts in the future.

The 2010 spill was a result of an explosion of the offshore drill Deepwater Horizon, which was drilling on a well operated by BP. BP investor MOEX Offshore 2007 LLC agreed to settle their liabilities in the spill, giving the state of Texas $6.5 million, according to the Texas attorney general’s website. Part of Texas’ settlement money will go towards acquiring 80 acres of land from the Goose Island State Park in Aransas, Texas to create a safe habitat for the whooping crane population, according to the Texas Parks & Wildlife website.

Katelyn Jordan, biology senior and Marine Science Club historian, said she supports the move towards conserving the whooping crane’s habitat and hopes to see more work in vulnerable coastline areas in the future.

“Some of the most fragile areas on the coastline are estuaries and coastal watershed areas because they really dictate things like salinity levels,” Jordan said. “Those are areas most impacted by oil spills. A lot smaller organisms like coastal birds live in that kind of environment and I definitely think it’s important to work to conserve their habitat.”

Conservation of habitats such as the whooping crane’s is just of one several initiatives environmentalists hope to act on, said Don Pitts, state coordinator for the Kills and Spills Team for Texas Parks & Wildlife.

“Habitat preservation is one of several different opportunities we utilize,” Pitts said. “We either like to preserve or protect, or create additional habitats in order to offset some of these damages.”

Pitts said the use of the settlement money to acquire state land for these efforts is an appropriate use of the funds.

“It’s a great opportunity to use restoration dollars to improve habitat using Texas resources,” Pitts said. “It’s a wonderful tract of land and a great opportunity for us to acquire and use it for this kind of preservation.”

Bob Stokes, president of the Galveston Bay Foundation, said Texas was less affected by the spill than other states, which allows officials to allocate this money for other conservation efforts, such as helping the whooping crane.

“This settlement is just a fraction of the overall case,” Stokes said. “[MOEX] is just one of the dependents. The settlement is going to be split among the five states, but a little more will go to states that were more affected. Even though we didn’t have more oil on our shores, our resources were still affected in the Gulf. This will go to more general coastal protection and conservation.”

Stokes said further settlement money from the spill could potentially be allocated to continued coastal restoration if Congress passes the RESTORE Act of 2011. Stokes said the RESTORE Act of 2011, which has not yet been passed by Congress, would require 80 percent of any settlement funds from the spill to go towards these coastal restoration projects. He said the current conservation efforts being made by Texas are additional attempts at restoration without the prompting of the RESTORE Act.

Printed on Thursday, April 12, 2012 as: Texas environmental initiatives gain funds from BP settlement

South by Southwest organizers are trying to avoid last minute festival chaos by addressing questions about venue permit application changes announced earlier this week.

After criticisms of last minute changes in ordinance guidelines last year, city officials held an open house to address the new 24-hour and multi-day permit process for this year’s SXSW festival. Representatives from various city departments involved with SXSW gathered at the former Austin City Limits studio at UT to sit down with business and venue owners Thursday night. Organized by Austin Music People, the event was held to answer questions about the new application periods for 24-hour and multi-day event permits.

This year, venues must submit applications for 24-hour permits 21 days before their events, and multi-day permits must be submitted 30 days before events. Applicants are required to include a temporary event impact plan in their application assessing traffic and parking issues, anticipated attendance and other potential impacts.

Don Pitts, manager for the city’s Music Office, said the change in deadline was prompted after 40 percent of last year’s SXSW venues did not submit their applications until the week before their event.

“As a city, we need to raise the bar in terms of the huge responsibility of this event,” Pitts said. “We are here today to prepare ahead of time and be able to distribute resources during the festival. It’s not about moving the goal post for participants but about working as the same team.”

Pitts said these plans are important to have before events take place so the city can better prepare for crowd mobs during events that “tweet out surprise guests at the last minute” like they did last year.

Austin Police Department Special Events Unit officers also spoke to business and venue owners about working together during the festival to ensure a safer event.

Commander William Manno said having a set deadline will help the police to better handle a wider variety of situations during the festival.

“Last minute permits make it difficult to assess the impact on surrounding areas for wherever that permit is for especially in the case of neighborhood areas,” Manno said. “If we have those applications in before, we can better prepare for noise, traffic or other issues.”

Joseph Strickland, co-owner of Home Slice Pizza, said last year’s SXSW was difficult because City Council members made changes to the outdoor event guidelines on short notice.

Home Slice Pizza has hosted a 3-day unofficial party during SXSW since they first opened six years ago. Strickland said last year was the first year they had any problems with code enforcement.

“Austin Music People is doing a better job at working with the city and sending information out through community outreach this year, and that’s all you can ask for as a business owner,” he said. “We need to know guidelines beforehand in order to comply with them.