Sundance and SXSW Considering "Echotone": A "Cultural Portrait" of Austin Music and Downtown Development

Don’t look now, but Austin may be on the verge of becoming the center of America’s next cultural moment. If Nathan Christ’s documentary “Echotone,” a low-budget film about the combustion of Austin’s booming inner-city development and its rocking music scene breaks through the final selection at the Sundance Film Festival, prepare for the nation’s eyes to fix again on the “Music Capital of the World.” As Christ’s film suggests, Austin may be the place where America’s economic recovery and its cultural renaissance intersect.

Or where they collide.

The rapid development of Austin’s central neighborhoods means larger audiences, bigger venues and more national attention.  It’s also brought higher housing costs and the proliferation of new sound ordinances.  The film asks us to weigh the effect of such changes on the city’s cultural bedrock and offers us a chance to take a larger view.

The films striking trailer touches off with the words, “Austin, TX: Present Day” as it soars over the cities burgeoning developments in a construction crane. In an interview with the Daily Texan, Christ eluded to the contemporary focus of the film: “There’re a lot of music films that are about looking back at a bygone era,” Christ said. “This is what history is. You should’ve been there. But, I realized in the past few years that a documentary can be in the present. You can make a powerful story about your age and about your peers.”

Right now SXSW is considering Echotone for a premier in March. If the film is selected, people in downtown Austin will be presented with a uniquely self-referential experience. On the films blog, Christ writes about  “the greater emotional vision of what a SXSW premiere could provide for the viewer,” At the climax, “the credits roll, and the audience walks out into the precisely the world they’ve just experienced for 90 minutes.”

Juxtaposing scenes of Austin’s quirky musical underground with the sights and sound of industrial construction, the film presents a town on the verge of awakening from a long slumber only to discover that it has become a city with an international reputation.

Featuring bands Belaire, “poised for commercial success, but conflicted over the thought of her music turning into a commodity” the “experimental troubadour” Bill Baird, and Black Joe Lewis’ man who fills music halls by night and delivers fish for a living by day, the film tells the story of the cities young artists while promising to deliver “a cultural portrait of the modern American city examined through the lyrics and lens of its creative class.”

Longtime residents of Austin will be surprised to find through Christ’s lens, that their city has suddenly acquired the magic appeal of San Francisco in the 1960s. For the outsider, the film may well crystallize everything they’ve been told about the little gem in the south.

What do you think about sound ordinances? Where should we draw the line between the needs of the Austin music scene and Downtown Austin’s growing residential community? Are these communities at odds or are they mutually beneficial?

Why can’t we be friends?


Density Bonus Program Stalls

For better or for worse, ROMA’s density bonus recommendations aren’t likely to be adopted anytime soon.  The Planning Commission believes that not all party’s concerns have been addressed and they are requesting a four-month review period.  My experience with the density bonus recommendations is that ROMA and the City’s Planning and Development Review Department went above and beyond what was necessary to gather input.  They’ve held town halls and sought out stake holder input, ad nauseam.  Did it feel like a seminar?  Yes, at times, because these are complicated issues with a learning curve.  As someone that’s opined at these input gathering sessions, I always felt my opinion/concerns/questions were being listened to.  Anyone that hasn’t weighed in on this yet cannot credibly claim they’ve not had the opportunity to do so.  Difficult decisions will need to be made that will not always assuage the concerns of all parties.

I’m still ambivalent on the density bonus.  But it’s easy to be frustrated with City Council and the Planning Commission because there has been a year of planning and citizen input on the recommendations put forth.  What does that say about the process of stakeholder input?  Maybe an additional four month review is warranted, but the notion that ROMA and the City’s Planning and Development Review Department have not made every effort possible to seek input is patently false, and leaves me to be skeptical that this is nothing more than junk-politics at work.

For two perspectives on the issue of warehouse district protection – a highlight of ROMA’s density bonus recommendation – check out this contribution by Mike McGill and Roger Cauvin.

Statesman link

Mayor Leffingwell's State Of Downtown Austin Address

Mayor Leffingwell's State Of Downtown Austin Address


At the DAA’s Annual Luncheon & Mayor’s State of Downtown Address yesterday, Mayor Leffingwell gave a bullish speech about downtown Austin growth.

I sat at the DANA table and observed Mayor Leffingwell as I’ve never seen nor heard him before.  A Mayor who recognizes that growing Austin’s downtown is not at odds with preserving Austin’s character, and that growing downtown is in fact complementary and necessary to smart growth for the entire city.  This is what we heard yesterday.

PRO downtown Austin growth
PRO urban rail system
PRO getting the bums out and dealing with crime*
PRO hotel and convention center growth

*I’m paraphrasing, he was much more diplomatic.

You don’t have to take my word for it.  There was a quorum of City Council members in attendance, including City Manager Marc Ott, who can provide their own testimony.  The Mayor provided some genuinely funny jokes, too.  The best one [kindheartedly] jibbed former Mayor Will Wynn, a downtown resident, about how much he enjoys greeting construction workers in the morning.  :-)

downtown-austin-alliance-2009-report (pdf)



City Hires Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services Director

According the City’s press release, Kevin Johns, was recently appointed to be “responsible for implementing economic programs that foster jobs and nurture Austin’s creative industries.”

Judging by that title, Kevin’s role in the future of Austin could have big impact.   What’s interesting to me is how much media coverage is given to how tall downtown buildings are allowed to be, all the while hugely important positions like this receive minimal dialogue in the blogosphere.  Maybe it’s just where I’m looking.

I’m interested in learning more about this position.  Godspeed Kevin.  Maybe you can rekindle Villa Muse.

Statesman Endorsements for Austin Mayoral and City Council Races

On Sunday, the Austin American Statesman released their endorsements: Brewster McCracken, Chris Riley, Bill Spelman, Mike Martinez, and Sheryl Cole.

Brewster with Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim Leage

Brewster with Richard Linklater and Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League

/link to drafthouse [just because :-)]