Save Downtown Races – My Letter to the City Council

Below are the series of letters I’ve sent about the task force.

12/15/2008

Dear Council Members and Mayor,

I’m writing to voice my concern about the current measures voted on by the downtown special events task force which will be presented to you at your meeting this Thursday at 2:00 pm. I would ask that you do not adopt the proposals until you solicit further public comment on the recommendations and hear alternatives. There has not been sufficient publication or sharing of the task force recommendations with your constituents and it is important that the public is made aware of their potential impact.

I have a few specific concerns about the items voted on by the Task Force which are noted in the Task Force minutes: http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/council/dsectf.htm

  1. It may increase the need for City Council approval, making exceptions the norm.
  2. Impact of events isn’t accurately accounted for.

The proposal has some good elements such as access through alternate main traffic corridors. However, as stated the majority of downtown races will now by default require City Council approval (11/10/08 Meeting). Based on the meetings I’ve attended City Staff need a process that Staff can manage, forcing City Council involvement for these events seems counterproductive and will lead to the same issues we have today. In most meetings, “exceptions” and “overrides” are what resulted in inconvenience to the public (I can provide examples from meetings if you need them). A proposal that results in more exceptions seems counter intuitive.

Making City Council approval necessary for so many events may unfortunately favor those people that can navigate the City Council to gain approval for events in the CBD. This has a danger of reducing the diversity of events and favoring larger professionally managed events over community driven events.

There has been significant progress made by event producers such as the Capital 10k that have embraced the “genius of the and”. Working with Mr. Merhar to accommodate Church goers the race timing was set such that East-West traffic could continue around the time of Church services. Though not a perfect solution it is a step in the right direction. This type of approach seems a much better solution that provides for events and those wanting to participate in them while accommodating the needs of church goers and businesses. When we hear of this I was under the impression the task force and people in attendance all though this was an example of working together across constituents. We should have a proposal that recognizes the need for creative solutions such as this and not blanket requirements stating a road should not be closed period.

The proposal doesn’t talk about the true impact. This should include aspects such as the net financial impact of an event, balanced with access, or the time of the event. If a race for example is completed by 8:00 am on a Saturday or Sunday it’s impact should be minimal. Should that not be treated differently than a race that runs till 11:00 am? The bar for the latter should be higher with things such as a greater positive economic impact, # of participants etc. This isn’t a single variable problem and the ordinance shouldn’t treat it as such.

In addition, I am disappointed that we are not considering the entire plan for the CBD including pedestrian friendly and pedestrian only zones as a more holistic solution. These approaches were mentioned in multiple meetings by the public and it is unfortunate that they were ignored.

There are a large number of people in Austin that come to the CBD because of the events and races held here, many bring their families with them and spend money with local businesses. We should be looking at how a larger number and diversity of events can make downtown Austin more vibrant and a desirable destination for city residents, tourists as well as support the efforts of businesses trying recruiting talent from other cities.

Best Regards,
Kamran

Keep Austin Running – www.keepaustinrunning.org
2/23/2008

Dear City Council Members and Mayor,

I sent an e-mail a couple of weeks about the Downtown Events Task Force and the concern at that time of a lack of vision for what events are supposed to do to improve Austin. The Task Force voted yesterday to “limit the number of events” in downtown Austin. The specific number to limit to hasn’t been set or the criteria so there are many details still to work out however this vote is concerning given so many issues are still unaddressed.

The number of events should not be of concern, it should be the net impact. Events and activities should be an integral part of the fabric of the CBD. I didn’t move to East Austin because to be close to the downtown area to sit in front of the TV all day. It’s the ability to walk around, and attend events like the Fine Arts Festival, Pecan Street Festival, and to run the small community races that are in the CBD. The people at the Pecan Street Festival this weekend and at the Silicon Labs Relay came from all over Austin to enjoy the atmosphere and activities in the CBD.

Talking with people that have lived in Austin for 20 to 30 years they talk about the time where the goal for Austin was to not let it grow at one time, not wanting people to move here. The attitude and goals for the Task Force are critical to it’s success and to what the CBD looks like and feels like moving forward. The changes recommended by the Task Force will have their impact felt over time. I sincerely hope the CBD doesn’t turn back into the Austin of years past.

As the meetings have progressed I and other have more and more concern that the Task Force is starting with a presumption that limiting events is necessary. The Task Force should be guided by a vision for making the CBD more vibrant and events should be a big part of that. From the discussions at the meetings it seems quite a few of the members have been inconvenienced by events and are trying to make sure the process moving forward does not do that. That is a valid concern but instead of a process that stifles events the Task Force should be challenged with making events integral to the CBD and comes up with creative ways to ensure impact is positive and the inconvenience to churches and businesses is reduced.

A number of runners have attended meetings for quite a while now and we have created a web-site to keep people informed and provide a forum for open discussion. You can visit the site here: http://www.keepaustinrunning.org/ The latest vote has of course started some passionate discussion.

Best Regards,
Kamran

9/14/2008

City Council Members and Mayor Wynn,

A number of citizens have been attending the task force meetings since August 11th when we were really first made aware of them. The last few meetings have been disheartening for a number of reasons that I’d like to share with you. The task force is large in size, and the public is aware that at least one member was added to it after being very vocal in the public comment portion of an earlier meeting. This unfortunately negatively impacts the impression about the intentions of other members of the task force, many of whose conduct in meetings and effort outside of them I personally have been very impressed with. I could recount the many things and issues at the meetings but there will be future opportunities for this and I’m sure you’ll be part of many e-mail campaigns as decisions and their impact become clearer.

At the meeting last Monday one thing stood out. There doesn’t seem to be a mission for the task force apart from trying to balance the interests of the task force and those they represent. There is nothing guiding the decisions as to what downtown Austin is supposed to be. One task force member, I hope just trying to make a point, commented that he “doesn’t want any events on Sundays”. I think about what everybody in Austin says to their friends or what visitors to Austin say about why they like the city, live here or want to live here. The words “outdoors”, “something for everybody to do”, “live music”, “arts”, “healthy” are common refrains.

The items voted on last week were also very “absolute” in their wording. Things like should there be a “requirement for events to support non-profits”. Well of course not, but it should be a factor given a weight. It was a confusing meeting with many decisions about not putting a limit on anything and deferring on substantive decisions. A task force member even commented that he wants to make sure they aren’t building a “bridge to nowhere”, which got some chuckles given the national election.

The current proposal doesn’t pass a basic smell test of putting some of last year and this years event through it, I would have expected at least this basic exercise. For example, limiting road closures to 12 days wouldn’t support something like the Downtown Austin Farmers Market. There is still a month remaining for the task force so all of us attending are hoping to see some tangible recommendations that we can comment on soon … that e-mail campaign I mentioned earlier 🙂

I’d like to ask you what your vision is for events in Austin, what is their purpose and what are they supposed to achieve? Without that in place there is no framework under which to make trade-offs and tough decisions. The danger of not having this in place is a watered down ordinance that stifles the CBD instead of improving it. This is a very challenging ordinance to put together and I and others in the community are sincerely hoping and committed to seeing guidelines that support a shared vision for a better Austin.

Best Regards,
Kamran

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