Some Austin music venues reopen to smaller crowds—but with thin margins and canceled tours, others never will
For a moment, everything almost seems normal.
The Friday night crowd at Riverside's Come and Take It Live is small but spirited. A few people watch Austin-based metal trio Muzzle Blast from the concert floor; others smoke on the patio or congregate around the bar, with far less than six feet between them and nary a face mask in sight.
Come and Take It Live is one of a handful of live music venues that have reopened since the end of May, following citywide shutdowns in mid-March to curtail the spread of coronavirus. As the Austin economy lurches back to life—and as the number of reported COVID-19 cases continues to increase—venue owners face a difficult proposition: Do they reopen their doors and hope their precautions help prevent infection, or do they stay closed and risk burning through their final reserves of cash?
For Come and Take It Live owner Anthony Stevenson, the answer was a simple matter of survival.
"Keeping a roof over our heads and keeping our employees fed is at the top of the list," he says.
Come and Take It Live is currently operating at half of its roughly 800-person capacity. Stevenson says he has encouraged venue staff to wear masks, made hand sanitizer readily available and tried to avoid contact when checking IDs or closing bar tabs. Still, he admits it's difficult to enforce any safety precautions once shows get started—especially as the state continues to loosen restrictions.
"I feel like people are becoming more and more comfortable already, and it's hard to adhere to guidelines when we don't know what they are 100%, because they have been changing," he says.
Many venues—particularly those on Red River Street, Austin's live music epicenter—remain closed and probably will for the foreseeable future. For many of these venues, to open at anything less than full capacity would be financially unsustainable due to their already razor-thin profit margins.
"Live music venues have a 98% cost model, which means that if you're really killing it in the business, you're making about 2% net," says Cody Cowan, executive director of the Red River Cultural District, which comprises more than 50 local businesses.
Cowan distinguishes between two types of live music venues in Austin: those that incorporate it into a larger business venture that includes retail, food and more; and those that make their revenue primarily from shows. Many Red River venues fall into the latter group, and they earn the vast majority of their annual revenue from tours and festival-adjacent shows. As long as the entire touring industry remains on hold, many midsized venues likely won't be able to justify reopening.
"Every big concert tour that has been scheduled here for the rest of the year, there's a likelihood that it won't happen," Mohawk general manager Tyson Swindell says. "The whole industry has re-routed their tours. It takes six months to plan a tour. You can't just pull the plug on it and then copy and paste everything over to three months down the line and hit 'go.'"
Cowan and Swindell both emphasize they are not public health experts and cannot give any scientifically backed forecasts for the future of Austin's live music industry. Still, Cowan predicts that if the coronavirus outbreak persists, several more venues will go the way of Barracuda, Plush and Scratchouse, which all shuttered last week.
"Managing expectations is really important," Cowan says. "If we can save 25-30% of the venues in Austin at this point, since we're disinclined to provide rent relief, we're going to be really fortunate."
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By Jonathan Lee
The Planning Commission was split Tuesday on whether to help save an eclectic lakefront estate from demolition by zoning it historic amid concerns over tax breaks and the likelihood that a previous owner participated in segregation as a business owner.
The property in question, known as the Delisle House, is located at 2002 Scenic Drive in Tarrytown. The main house, with Spanish and Modern influences, was built in 1923 by Raymond Delisle, an optician. A Gothic Revival accessory apartment was built in 1946. The current owner applied to demolish the structures in order to build a new home.'
Historic preservationists, for their part, overwhelmingly support historic zoning, which would preserve the buildings in perpetuity. The Historic Landmark Commission unanimously voted to initiate historic zoning in July, citing architectural significance, landscape features and association to historic figures. City staffers recommend historic zoning, calling both structures one-of-a-kind examples of vernacular architecture.
Tarrytown neighbors have also banded together to stop the demolition. Many have written letters, and a few spoke at the meeting. “How could anyone buy this property with the intent of destroying it?” Ila Falvey said. “I think it’s an architectural treasure.”
Michael Whellan, an attorney representing the property owner, said that the claims made by preservationists are shaky. The buildings are run down, he said, and have had substantial renovations. A structural engineer hired by the owner said any attempt at preservation would involve tearing down and rebuilding – an undertaking Whellan said would likely cost millions.
Whellan also argued that any historical significance derived from the property’s association with Delisle and longtime owner C.H. Slator is dubious. “These men are not noted for any civic, philanthropic or historic impact,” he said.
What’s more, according to Whellan, Slator likely participated in segregation as the owner of the Tavern on North Lamar Boulevard between 1953 and 1960.
A city staffer, however, said she found no evidence to support the claim. “We would never landmark a property where a segregationist lived, or there was a racist person,” Kimberly Collins with the Historic Preservation Office said.
Commissioner Awais Azhar couldn’t support historic zoning in part due to lingering uncertainty about Slator. “Focusing on that factor is not here to disparage an individual or family. It is not about playing the race card. This is an important assertion for us to consider as Planning commissioners,” Azhar said.
Commissioner Carmen Llanes Pulido said that allegations of racism should come as no surprise. “We’re talking about white male property owners in the 1950s, in Austin, on the west side – and of course they were racist,” she said. But she argued that allowing the house to be demolished based on these grounds does nothing to help people of color who have been harmed by racism and segregation.
The question of tax breaks was also controversial. Michael Gaudini, representing the property owner, said that the tax breaks associated with historic zoning would exacerbate inequality by shifting property tax burdens to less affluent communities. City staffers estimate that the property, appraised at $3.5 million, would get either a $8,500 or $16,107 property tax break annually, depending on whether a homestead exemption is applied.
Commissioner Grayson Cox preferred the commission focus not on tax breaks but on whether the structures merit preservation. “To me, nothing in the historic preservation criteria lists, is this person deserving of a tax break or not?”
Azhar, on the other hand, said he plans to propose a code amendment getting rid of city property tax breaks for historic properties.
The commission fell one vote short of recommending historic zoning, with six commissioners in support and three opposed. Azhar and commissioners Claire Hempel and Greg Anderson voted against.
The odds of City Council zoning over an owner’s wishes are slim. Nine out of 11 members must vote in favor, and there have only been a handful of such cases over the past several decades.
What's new in Austin food & drink this week:
- Nau's Enfield Drug closing after losing their lease. Did McGuire Moorman Lambert buy the building, with its vintage soda fountain?
- Nixta Taqueria Chef Edgar Rico named to Time Magazine's Time 100 Next influencer list, after winning a James Beard Award earlier this year.
- Question: From what BBQ joint did pescatarian Harry Styles order food this week?
- Austin Motel is opening the pool and pool bar Wednesday nights in October for Freaky Floats.
- Vincent's on the Lake closing due to "economic conditions and low water levels [at Lake Travis]."
- Cenote has closed its Windsor Park location. The East Cesar Chavez location remains open.
- The Steeping Room on N. Lamar has closed.
- Local startup It's Skinnyscored new financing for its gluten-free pasta business.
- P. Terry's opened a new location in Kyle, at 18940 IH-35.