City report suggests new safety measures during South by Southwest

Next year’s South by Southwest festival could look very different, with fewer pop-up events, less crowded venues and lines, more police patrolling downtown and a downtown shuttle to ease parking and traffic problems.

But that’s only if the City Council fully embraces the recommendations of a long-overdue report on improving safety at the weeklong festival.

The SXSW evaluation — originally due in mid-June and released Thursday by city officials — was ordered by the City Council in the wake of a tumultuous March festival that included a fatal crash on Red River Street and an incident in which police say an artist tried to incite a riot. There were also complaints about massive crowds downtown, gridlocked traffic and overbooked parties with never-ending lines.

“The city finds itself at a critical point where public safety could be compromised if policies are not put in place for the 2015 SXSW festival and the non-sanctioned events surrounding it,” the report says.

It wasn’t immediately clear when the council will consider these suggestions, though Council Member Mike Martinez said he supports the report’s aims and plans to offer a resolution supporting some of them.

“We have to get control of large-scale events like South by Southwest,” Martinez said.

The city will likely get some push-back from South by Southwest festival organizers, though the report makes clear that many of the pop-up events not sanctioned by South by Southwest are to blame for problems with overcrowded venues and excessive alcohol consumption.

In a statement Thursday, SXSW spokesman Bill Miller said he appreciated the city staff’s efforts to compile the report, but called it “incomplete.”

“We feel that it is incomplete for what it is intended to accomplish and does not address many of the root issues,” he said.

The report identifies two major issues contributing to safety problems during the festival: alcohol consumption and overstuffed venues.

The Statesman reported earlier this week that the city planned to give “closer scrutiny” to applications for temporary event permits during next year’s festival.

The report also suggests creating a new entertainment permit during SXSW week for both temporary and permanent venues. The city should also strengthen its rules to allow for better enforcement of violators, the report said.

As it is now, the report said, brick-and-mortar venues that host musical events year-round operate under annual permits and aren’t required to have safety plans dealing with outside crowd management.

Martinez said it makes sense to have this new entertainment permit and stricter standards for approving temporary event permits. “There should be a safety plan that comes with it, a traffic plan,” he said.

The city placed blame on both SXSW and the unofficial events for consistently failing to give the city’s special events staff, in advance, a list of performers. “Many times an internationally-known celebrity will draw huge crowds to venues with no safety plan,” the report said.

As South by Southwest itself has grown to nearly 80,000 registrants for the film, interactive and music portions of its festivals, so have the number of ancillary events, which can be hard to distinguish from the official events at times.

The city’s report said more than 7,000 events were advertised on social media during the week of South by Southwest this year, “a number that does not account for private events and secret shows,” the report says.

Many of these events offer free alcohol, and the report suggests better coordination with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. The report recommended having more TABC officers present during the festival and encourages the agency to consider limiting how and when free alcohol is served.

Music venue owners who rely on South by Southwest to boost their income have said in the past they fear a crackdown on events will hurt their business. On Thursday, some business leaders offered a guarded thumbs-up.

Shuttle buses and additional police officers sound like an enhancement to David Morrison, the secretary of the 6ixth Street Austin Association.

“I’m all about making it bigger and better,” said Morrison, who rents out several spaces on Sixth Street to businesses during the event. “People are going to come, we just have to figure out how to separate them and move them around.”

Some of the report’s suggestions would carry a price tag.

For instance, the city wants to bolster its Public Assembly Code Enforcement team, which approves many of the temporary permits for SXSW. Adding two new PACE teams would cost $301,500. That amount of money is a relatively small chunk of the city’s $3.5 billion budget, Martinez noted, adding that these teams would operate year-round and help with other events.

“It’s not just about South by Southwest, it’s about Austin being an event city,” he said.

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