Archives for May 2010

Downtown Culture Cruise

Downtown Culture Cruise

UPDATE: The ride will meetup at our local bodega grocer, Royal Blue, just below 360 condos (not Java Jive as had been planned) Saturday morning between 8:30 and 9am. If you need a bike or haven’t RSVP’d, click below…

This Dutch cruiser has internal gears and is perfect for using around downtown Austin

Block out the morning of Saturday, June 5th, because you’re going to want to cruise with us on a bicycle stroll through downtown.  Downtown Austin Blog is working in partnership with Living On Two Wheel’s to bring you the Downtown Culture Cruise, part of LTW’s Summer Social Ride Series. The guided ride will include stops to look at some of downtown’s hottest condos as well as food and shopping stops to sample downtown living.

Stops will include food and drink at Froots in the 2nd street district and a vehicle presentation by Austin CarShare. Whether you are looking to move downtown, learn more about living an urban lifestyle, or just want to see some great properties, this ride is going to be a lot of fun.

All food & drink, bike valet, and guides included in registration as well as a coupon book to series partner businesses. We’ll be drawing to giveaway an Electra Amsterdam Royal 8 bike at the end of the series. Dutch city bikes available for rental on tour. Total ride distance will be approximately 5 miles.

Downtown Culture Cruise

DATE: Saturday, June 5, 2010

TIME: Meet up at 8:30 AM, Leave at 9:00 AM (please arrive at least 15 minutes prior to departure for check-in). Ride will wrap up by approximately Noon.

LOCATION: Austin City Hall, north side of building, 301 West 2nd St

COST: Before ride day $20/person, Ride day cash only registration $25. Bring a friend and save $5! 2 persons registration: $35, Ride day cash registration $45. (Ride is limit to 50 riders.)

RIDE PACE: These are social rides so we will be riding at a pleasant social pace and no one will be dropped. Our ride guides will be wearing identifiable shirts and will keep the group together and make sure no one is left behind. This ride is about the simple pleasure of riding with friends, not competition or workouts. If you want to race or get in a workout, we’d suggest you do that before the ride.

OTHER INFO: Please bring a bike in working order. Our ride guides will have spare tubes and basic repair equipment should you run into trouble. In addition to food and drink on the tour, bottled water will be available to participants. Please bring ID if you plan to sample alcoholic beverages at the stops. Staff will watch bikes at each stop so locking bikes will be optional. If you are in need of a tune-up, please check with a bike shop like Bicycle Sport Shop at least three days before the tour.

NEED A BIKE? We will have a limited number of Dutch bikes available to ride on the tour for rent for $20 for those who need a bike.

The New Capitol Complex Vision – What Else Is So Important About This?

The New Capitol Complex Vision – What Else Is So Important About This?

As a clued-in DAB reader, hopefully you already know about the recent announcement of a very exciting vision and plan to potentially redevelop some 20 or so blocks of Downtown Austin land  surrounding the Capitol.  It’s land owned by the State, most of it terribly underutilized and poorly built out today.  The plan could transform the area into as much a 7 million square feet of new office and mixed use space.

Info on the plan has been well covered by both the Austin Chronicle and the Statesman.  And Chris Bradford does a nice job of discussing the economic impact aspects in his Austin Contrarian blog.  Obviously getting so many blocks onto the tax rolls would be a huge boost to the local economy while also bringing alive the virtual “dead zone” of downtown space between the Capitol and UT.

But the one further exciting possibility to work into this equation that I have not seen explored yet: the opportunity for new housing.  AFFORDABLE HOUSING, to be specific.

This has started to be investigated somewhat as part of the planning work being done around the Waller Creek Tunnel & Redevelopment project.  Now, this Capitol redevelopment plan raises the possibility of really connecting these pieces into a solution of great possibilities.

The target properties are all those hideous parking garages that line San Jacinto and Trinity streets.

And the target population to serve should be:  State office workers, of course.  But also downtown service and support industry workers like bar and restaurant staff, hotel housekeepers, retail clerks, musicians and artists.  And also UT and ACC students, too (that would help take some pressure off of over-development of multi-unit housing along the East Riverside corridor where the EROC Neighborhood Association is fighting for survival of what SFR neighborhoods they have left).

Jude is better qualified than I to comment about the supply versus demand of half-million-dollar-plus condos within the CBD,  But I am a business owner who works in and close to the aforementioned “service and support” infrastructure that provides downtown with its excitement, vibrancy and great economic vitality in this area.

In that capacity I can say that we have a massive missed opportunity right now to build out a whole neighborhood of mid-rise,  mixed-use buildings that has as its core focus affordable housing.  I’m talking smaller studio, 1BR and 2BR rental units that can lease for $500-$1,000 per month.

That would give us places to house our critical service industry workers, students and state office support staff within walking distance of the places where they work, study and play the rest of their dayparts.  Right now, these folks are having to live in far north or south Austin, thus adding to the traffic congestion on local roads or having to add hour-long bus rides in two directions to their already long and hard days.  (Not that Cap Metro runs any bus service after midnight when loads of these folks get off of work or leave our multiple downtown entertainment districts.)

If you would like to see and hear more about the Capitol Redevelopment vision/plan, the Downtown Austin Alliance is hosting a forum next week — June 3rd, 7:30am — where you can have a close up look and hear directly from the folks involved with the project.  It’s early in the morning but you can do it!  🙂  Free and open to the public but an RSVP is requested to make sure there are enough breakfast tacos and OJ on hand to reward your attendance.  Details can be found here.

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WHAT: Downtown Austin Alliance, Issues & Eggs Breakfast Forum
TOPIC: Capitol Complex Redevelopment Plan
WHEN: Thursday, June 3, 2010; 7:30am breakfast, 8:00am presentation
WHERE: St. David’s Episcopal Church, Sumner Hall, San Jacinto betw. 7th & 8th
RSVP by June 1 to:  rsvp@downtownaustin.com  or call (512) 381-6270

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Waller Creek Tunnel Project TIF Analysis

Last week’s meeting of the Waller Creek Citizens Advisory Committee hosted an update on the Tax Increment Financing district that was established to fund the construction of the Waller Creek tunnel.  Below is a summary of Q&A between WCCAC and Leslie Browder with the City Budget office

Waller Creek District Master Plan - Open Spaces


1. How much land is in the TIF (acres)?

TIF Reinvestment Zone No. 17 includes approximately 126 acres.

2. What are the geographic boundaries of the district?

The boundaries of the zone are within the area bounded on the west by Red River Street from 12th Street south to 3rd Street, then west along 3rd Street to Trinity Street, then south along Trinity Street to Lady Bird Lake; on the south by Lady Bird Lake from Trinity Street east to Cummings Street, then east along Cummings Street to East Avenue; on the east by East Avenue from Cummings Street north to the south bound access road of IH-35, then along said access road north to 11th Street, then west along 11th Street to Sabine Street, and north along Sabine Street to Red River Street; and on the north by 12th Street between Sabine Street and Red River Street.

[Read more…]

Wild About Music – The Real Estate Tale of an Iconic Downtown Business

Wild About Music – The Real Estate Tale of an Iconic Downtown Business

When Jude recently asked me start writing some stories for DAB, he thought it might be beneficial for folks to get a sense of my “downtown history” from the perspective of a local retail business owners’ leasing odyssey over 16 years.  OK, here goes!  I’ll stick with the angle of space and location because you can find out more about the business itself, Wild About Music Art & Gift Gallery (WAM), by stopping in at 115 E. 6th, across from the Driskill Hotel, or checking out our fine website here.

My partner, Shelley Meyer, and I started out in 1995 by buying the name and assets of a tiny sole-proprietor hobby business located inside the old Bluebonnet Market on the NW corner of Neches and East 3rd.   A late-90s expansion of the Convention Center resulted in demolition of the Market which stood right where Exhibit Hall 4 is today.  We took that little 200-sf booth and set out to expand it into our vision of a 5,000-sf all-music-themed art and gift gallery, plus office and warehouse space.

The Wild About Music booth inside Bluebonnet Market

The original Wild About Music: a 10×20 booth inside Bluebonnet Market, 1991-95

We knew we wanted the business to have a heavy Austin and Texas flavor — to celebrate the confluence of art and music in this region and its influence on local culture.  As a dedicated “urban retailer” we wouldn’t have anything to do with malls or strip centers.  We required authentic vintage buildings/spaces with a more natural local vibe.  Downtown has always been the only choice for us, no matter what the challenges have proved to be.

Ironically, even though WAM’s heart and soul is grounded in music, we wanted nothing to do with East 6th Street at the time.  We had watched it decline in the late 80s and 90s to a cheesy array of shot bars raided by late night college kids and mostly vagrants wandering the blocks by day.

710 W. 6th in 1996

710 W. 6th in 1996

So our first stop was 710 W. 6th, the building where J.Black’s and The Ranch reside today. We figured we’d still catch some of the global  “Sixth Street brand” cachet but stay away from its problems by being west of Congress.  With a 5-year lease in hand on the long vacant former furniture store, we rolled out a fun piano keyboard entry foyer handmade with one-inch tiles, dressed out the big display windows mighty fine, filled out five giant rooms full of the coolest art and sculptures you’d ever seen, hung some outdoor speakers to lure in passersby, and waited for the customers to show up!  We waited alright.

710 W. 6th Today

710 W. 6th today

For a year we watched the cars stack up out front with the backup at the Lamar traffic light.  We soon realized we were about a decade ahead of “the scene” forming in that neighborhood.  There was only Katz’s, Opal Divine’s Freehouse and us at the time.  Oh yes, and Leslie making visits to the MHMR clinic across the street where Molotov now burns red hot.  There was supposed to be a big retail center going in where Whole Foods stands today that would help bring more shoppers to the area.  Never happened.

We knew we were doomed unless we got the heck out of there fast.  Fortunately my longtime commercial real estate agent, Don Cox, quickly found us a great sublessee, a dot.com company to use our space as offices during a growth spurt for the remaining 3.5 years of our term.  In fact, Don was so fast, we had not yet even found a new home for ourselves!  So we packed up our goods and fixtures real snug and moved completely offline into some teeny vacant space around the corner behind Katz’s.

721 Congress windows alive with light and color 24/7 during WAM tenure, 1997-2004

Finally, after three months, our search yielded an amazing new spot: 721 Congress Avenue, the Main Street of Texas, right next door to the historic Paramount and State Theaters!  It was a fabulous open building with huge display windows that wrapped around it’s great corner location at 8th.  It even came with a 60+ year retail history as the home of locally-owned Reynolds-Penland men’s store, a predecessor to today’s Keeper’s (6th & Congress).  The Stephen F. Austin Intercontinental Hotel was not there yet, but we knew that our friend, Tom Stacy, would not rest until he got that derelict building at the other end of the block completely remodeled and open again.

Wild About Music had an excellent 8-year run on Congress, growing together with the resurgence of downtown as a whole during Kirk Watson’s energetic mayoral reign.  We found profitability and success there despite nearly being driven out of business by our landlord — who was the neighboring State Theater (pre-merger with the Paramount) — when they intentionally busted through the common wall into our leased space with a crazy expansion idea for box seats during their renovation.  But I digress; that’s a whole other story.

The 8th St. display windows of 721 Congress when WAM was there

We loved being in that 700 block of Congress — the only fully intact (both sides of the street) historic block left on Congress between the Capitol and the river, I may add.  We had excellent synergy with concerts, plays and events at the Paramount, and enjoyed good camaraderie with fellow retailers a few blocks in both directions.  We would probably still be there today had fate not struck again and our lease expire about the same time.

The theaters (merged by then, along with the ownership of our building) had fallen on some hard times financially and our building was put up for sale.  With hopes of maybe owning our own real estate and getting out of leased-space vulnerability, we planned to buy the building ourselves.  But the location ended up getting cleverly bundled together at auction with undeveloped overhead “aerial rights”.  That put the bid pricing at more than double fair market value for just the land and existing building, thus also way out of our price range.

721 Congress today

721 Congress today: empty for five long years

It forced the sale into the hands of a developer who had visions of million dollar condos stacked eight floors high and a big fancy steakhouse right where we sat.  He couldn’t wait for us to have to vacate, coming in the very next day and gutting the space.  And that’s how it remains to this day: sadly empty, not even a fresh coat of paint on the outside in 14 years, dirty windows, and absent a few nice temporary displays to help brighten the corner and the rest of that wonderful block.  It’s a fitting monument to when development gets ahead of reality…runs over yet another iconic local business…and then the new building owner doesn’t even have the pride and decency to maintain his building in a manner worthy of being on The Main Street of Texas.

But hey, that saga ended happily after all —  at least for us.  With contents once more loaded onto moving trucks and, once again, no new downtown home yet secured, we landed in our current funky, multi-level space in the Littlefield “Mall”/Garage/Apartments on a prayer and a lease done on a scrap of paper in about 20 minutes.  No joke.

I had inquired about this same long-vacant space several times over many months prior to our need to move.  Each time I was told: “you don’t fit what we’re looking for.”  But with nothing to lose, I tried one last time.  The leasing agent who I had spoken with previously was out of town, so I ended up chatting with his partner.  After explaining our plight, he agreed to meet us over at the space.  As prior AT&T retail space, it was perfect!  Then he said:  “Why, sure, we’d love to have y’all in this spot.  But the building is for sale so we can only give you a month-to-month lease.”

SRV In Front of OK Records at 115 E. 6thAlthough quite nervous about the term (or lack thereof), the next day we were in there painting and arranging.  A few weeks later Wild About Music re-opened downtown for the fourth time.  An interesting sidenote:  This also happens to be the very same spot (but in a previous building that stood there) of the original location of Austin’s famed Antone’s Home of The Blues, and the adjoining OK Records.  Here a young Stevie Ray Vaughan posed with his guitar out front for a classic Austin Chronicle photo that also later became the album cover of Blues At Sunrise.

Somehow we have managed to last for almost 6 years now on those month-to-month terms.  (Please, someone, knock on wood.)  This despite four changes of building ownership over the first four years.  During two of those painful interim holdings we were told we were soon going to be history again.  Once to be replaced by a high-end spa and salon to service an upscale South Beach Miami boutique hotel; clearly “WAM did not fit that formula,” we were told.  Then, later, another threat by a Walgreen’s coming to invade historic Sixth Street via our space — yes, I know, pathetic, aye? — because “a national-credit tenant could pay far more than a little local business,” said yet another very important leasing agent.

Fortunately we now find ourselves in the care and attentive property ownership of T. Stacy & Associates and their great staff.  We know full well that handwriting is on the wall and another move still looms large in our future.  Our block has been designated for some very intensive redevelopment one day.  Some of it would have already begun had the recession not intervened.  But at least with Tom Stacy on the other end, we also know that we will have loads of advance warning and likely plenty of helping hands to make sure we do alright in any transition.  Perhaps we might even end up right back in the same spot post-redevelopment (if we could survive an interim solution half intact).

Wild About Music today at 115 E. 6th

Wild About Music today at 115 E. 6th

Alternatively, our hope is to find Wild About Music a permanent home within one of the amazing old buildings of East 6th’s majestic Historic & Entertainment District — to experience a return to the days when buildings like those on East 6th were, in fact, owner-operated buildings and businesses.  As a visitor to the street you should be able to evidence an O&O shop by the pride exhibited in the fastidious exterior presentations, the warmth and genuineness of the interior business offerings, and the down home friendliness of the proprietors and staff.

That’s why I serve on the 6ixth Street Austin board.  That’s why I and my fellow board members are so passionate about the renewed vision for this street.  That’s why we and a handful of fellow dedicated E.6th property and business owners are working tirelessly to bring about much needed change to the street after two decades of dirt, neglect and despair.

Sure, it’s still fairly dowdy in spots right now.  And we know we need additional quality daytime offerings like more shops and galleries, a few more unique eateries, and more live music venues back on the street.  But we do have a vision: to become the premier destination for the best of Authentic Austin owned and developed businesses to be found anywhere.  And, importantly, a plan (to be discussed separately) to get there.

Thanks for reading.  To be continued…

Boutique Hotel Coming to 400 Block of Congress?

416 Congress Ave

The DAA has been working for years to recruit retailers and destinations to Congress Ave.  Operating with a bold vision that Congress Ave can return to its pre-1950s prominence.

Many downtown Austin stakeholders (including this author) are concerned about “bar creep” from 6th Street and the Warehouse district.

Yesterday, the Statesman reported on a possible boutique hotel concept in the 400 block of Congress Ave.  This is a step in the right direction.  A hotel concept that embraces the historical nature of the building.

When done right, boutique hotels provide terrific branding for a city and a district.  It’s hard to imagine SoCo without Hotel San Jose or the Austin Motel.  Historic-ish structures that have been modernized.

One reason a hotel concept like this is so important to a burgeoning district is because boutique hotels are talked about outside of Austin.  They are reviewed and discussed on travel forums and websites like TripAdvisor.

That discussion ends up having a significant role in branding and defining the character of a district.  Years ago, Hotel San Jose helped revitalize SoCo into a destination for visitors. A boutique hotel like this could be another catalyst for Congress Ave.

I’d love to see this happen.

-Jude