Shop The Block? More Like Force Out Your Neighbors

The title of this piece, a report that I started back in October and published yesterday:

…includes the reference number for business that will be brought before the Austin city council soon. The business? A permit to allow outdoor music two nights a week right in the middle of the Crestview neighborhood. These events have actually been going on illegally for more than a year now, and only recently were permitted retroactively under the little known provisions passed in the summer of 2020 named Shop the Block.

The owner of the Violet Crown Clubhouse is a wealthy transplant to the Austin area. He is purportedly either a paid consultant or an outright employee of the City. He throws fundraisers for councilmember Leslie Pool, the representative for the area that includes the Crestview shopping center where his business is situated. The city has informed us that there is no way to rescind the permit even though nearly every neighbor within hearing distance of the center has asked for the events to stop. Hopefully these facts will be enough to grab media interest in the subject. If you are in the media and want to know more, message me.

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Crestview Shopping Center – Violet Crown Clubhouse – 2021-195519 SE

I was retained by one of the tenants of the Crestview Shopping Center for the purpose of exploring the advisability of allowing the Violet Crown Clubhouse (VCC) to continue exercising their permit issued under the Shop the Block provisions passed by Austin City Council during the height of the COVID pandemic in 2020. I have a lengthy resume and history in Austin and Texas, especially when the subject at hand is the design and construction of retail space. My professional history includes both documentation and construction supervision of countless retail finish-outs as well as original shells and renovations of the shells of shopping centers around the country. I am also well-versed in assessing whether a designed space is accessible to the differently abled and have offered my services as a consultant on questions of accessibility several times over the years.

These simple declarations should demonstrate that I have the expertise necessary to offer an opinion on the issue of a usage permit like this one, in a commercial space like the one that Violet Crown Clubhouse currently occupies.

History

The Crestview Shopping Center was originally constructed in 1952. It contained the two wings of shops that are still largely the same today, with a grassy mall area between the two wings and parking at either end of the center.

The grassy area was filled in with additional parking at some point in the long history of the center and there is a related filling station that occupies the same physical property as the shopping center itself. The filling station / repair shop / auto storage lot is at most a tangential issue to the problems that I have been asked to weigh in on; however, the state of that section of the property is nonetheless troubling and illustrates one of the many problems that the center has, problems that the twice weekly outdoor concerts under the Shop the Block permit make substantially worse.

I have walked the site several times personally, both in relation to this current predicament and earlier when I was simply indulging my innate curiosity for all things architectural. The center is reasonably typical for the time period that it was constructed in. A mixture of clay and concrete block support structure with steel roof members supporting a metal roof deck and a modified bitumen roof. Blond face brick adorns the exterior, with exterior doors and an aluminum storefront system that positively reek with nostalgia.

Assessment

The center’s retro charm is also one of its greatest liabilities. The materials themselves are poor insulators against sound intrusion. The roof and windows leak thermally as well, making the structure harder to heat or cool cheaply than a more modern structure would be. Modifications made over the course of almost 70 years of use have also had their toll. HVAC ductwork penetrates tenant separation walls and roofs in ways that are contrary to current building and fire code requirements. In many ways, the center is a fire tragedy waiting to happen. This has only been averted or minimized by the relatively small number of people who have been in and around the buildings on a regular basis, historically.

There are other problems with the center. There are asbestos-containing materials visible on floors and roof members, unabated, as well as street damage along one side of the complex and what can only be assessed as wholly inadequate maintenance of the sanitation facilities along the same side of the building as the apparently abandoned loading and unloading docks on Arroyo Seco. Several parts of the structure are open directly to the elements, allowing for rodent and pest infestations in both buildings and requiring the tenants to spend precious time and resources just to keep their interior spaces up to health codes when it should be the owner of the property footing that bill.

The site’s location further complicates the problem. Single family residences face all sides of the complex itself, the code-required buffer zones between single family and local retail having not been instated until long after the center was constructed. This fact makes it difficult to do anything to the shopping center without getting usage waivers for any changes, changes that are essential to bringing the site up to modern standards and into compliance with current city codes.

The continued use of the facilities in their current state is, of course, grandfathered in. Historical uses may continue without generating code violations and I’m sure nearly every reader of this report knows and understands the necessity of this. The problem presented by VCC and its Shop the Block permit is that this is a departure from previously grandfathered uses of the center and its retail space.

The location where VCC resides was permitted as a pharmacy, not a food retailer, a bar, a pub or a nightclub. If you look at the usage that VCC originally offered, that of an Ice Cream Shop, it is easy to grandfather that in as just an extension of the soda fountain in an old-style pharmacy. However, the application for and subsequent granting of a beer and wine servers license to VCC alters the grandfathered usage into something that hasn’t historically been present in the center before.

Children are ever-present at VCC. This has probably always been true of the Crestview center itself. The mall area that has been paved over as additional parking would have attracted children like a magnet, historically. However, there is little to no adult supervision provided for these children by their parents or by the center itself on a day-to-day basis. Children that are now present at an establishment that serves alcohol.

The children being unsupervised onsite is troublesome enough. Adding in the Shop the Block permit, the crowds that live music draws, the alcohol being served and consumed in the parking lot as was observed by several passers-by at a recent event held at VCC; putting that all together you not only have a business that has probably already provided alcohol to underaged children, but you have crowds milling around outside of buildings that are unsafe from a fire perspective under current code, with crowds and tables blocking required fire exits if the unthinkable fire incident were to occur.

This subject is worth taking a little longer to break down so that it is not misunderstood. The covered sidewalk along the fronts of both sides of the center is there for many reasons, not just for pedestrians to stroll past display windows. The width of the walkway must also provide for emergency egress and for ADA accessibility as well as for shoppers browsing business fronts. A clear 36 inches of width is required just for wheelchair access, and this doesn’t factor into required exit width in excess of the 36 inch minimum. This means that the picnic tables on both sides of the center are probably present in direct violation of applicable safety codes, not to mention the days when VCC sets up the sound equipment and uses the sidewalk on their side of the center as a stage. This usage removes the exit corridor from that side of the center, requiring anyone who isn’t fully abled to be assisted off the walkway just to leave the area.

If you look at this situation from the perspective of a tenant of the center, it is hard not to imagine yourself being outraged at these recent developments. VCC has established a near-permanent use of the common space of the center by occupying the parking lot on event nights. What’s worse, the noise created by VCC’s entertainment and customers invades your leased premises, depriving you of the use of your rightful property.

Violet Crown Clubhouse has taken advantage of lax City enforcement during this pandemic at the potential risk to your life and the future existence of your business just so that they can create what is essentially a music venue in the middle of what was once a quiet neighborhood.

There is now ample evidence that a traffic impact study should be conducted just based on the traffic snarls that have occurred in the area concurrent with the last few scheduled VCC events. With parking lots overflowing onto side streets due to the influx of traffic, there is little room for the city to argue that what has been created is a destination, a music venue where one did not exist before.

This brings us to the subject of the noise intrusion itself, the most egregious part of the Shop the Block permit. The sound impact plan that is attached to the Shop the Block permit attempts to turn the entirety of the Crestview center into a sound buffer zone for VCC. This approach to mitigation of the sound created by VCC’s parking lot concerts isn’t compliant with established law or applicable building codes. The sound inside of the center that is above allowable limits goes into spaces that VCC does not have the right to invade, and yet isn’t factored into the sound impact plan.

The premises not leased to VCC directly are private property that has been leased to other paying tenants and their paying customers for the purpose of furthering those businesses, not the VCC.  The common areas of the center are private property for the non-exclusive use of all the tenants and their invitees.  The City cannot compel other tenants to allow their property to be used as part of a buffer zone.  In addition, Texas law designates the common area of shops as a public place,  which is incompatible with a buffer zone.  With no buffer zone, VCC cannot have musical performances outdoors without the permission of the tenants whose space their noise will invade. 

I am saddened by the state that the Crestview center is currently in. It pains me to see any structure misused and abused. I personally would love to see the entire center renovated, the mall restored and  more trees planted where cars are currently parking. Adding the mall space back into the center would create a place where live music could be performed without blocking required access to and from the shops along the edges of the newly created public place. Hedges along the outside of the walkways could help muffle the sound from the mall. Baffles could be added in the ceiling of the covered walkway to redirect noise away from the shops. The storefronts could be upgraded to double glazing to further reduce sound impact inside the shops. Walls could be insulated and a sprinkler system could be installed, lessening the potential fire hazard. Making these kinds of changes would turn the center back into the kind of local retail center that the location lends itself to as well as an accommodating host for special entertainment events like the ones that were historically held there.

I think that there is an amicable solution that could be arranged, one that would satisfy all concerned here, but that solution will not be cheap. The lack of maintenance on Crestview center’s facilities leads me to think that the owner will not be willing to make the kinds of investment that will be necessary to bring the site into compliance with city code, even without VCC and its Shop the Block permit and the problems that they both create. Problems that are created not just for the other tenants, but for the surrounding neighborhood as well.

Without a commitment by the owners to invest sufficient funds into the complex so as to bring down noise levels in adjacent tenant spaces, above and beyond reducing sound in the neighborhood around the complex; to provide supervision for the children that the center already draws to the location, like any other child-oriented facility is required to provide; and without a traffic impact study that demonstrates that the additional traffic created by VCC’s Shop the Block music venue can be accommodated on existing surrounding roadways, I must regretfully side with the most outspoken of the nay-sayers on this subject.

If the above described conditions aren’t agreed to by VCC and the Crestview center’s owners, or if the Shop the Block permit for Violet Crown Clubhouse is not revoked, then it is my professional opinion that the entire Crestview Shopping Center should be shut down until it can be brought into compliance with city code. I do understand that closing the center could well mean that it may never reopen. I also understand that this course would remove a vital piece of neighborhood infrastructure and would make the neighborhood poorer for it. However, the risks involved in allowing these events to continue to occur as they have already been established are too high. One mistake at any one of these events could cost lives and also impact the entire neighborhood. It would be better to err on the side of caution than to be responsible for the resultant loss of life.

I understand that the Violet Crown Clubhouse in the Crestview center is hardly the most egregious example of impermissible commercial usage in the city. There are any number of other establishments out there that I will not do business at because I consider their continued existence a potential health hazard, places that are in worse physical shape than the Crestview center. You may well challenge my conclusions on those grounds. “If we aren’t shutting those places down, then why should we shut the Violet Crown Clubhouse down?” If you would like a list of those places I allude to, I would be happy to help you compile it at some future date so that they could be investigated and shut down as well, if warranted.

The reason I think that this action is warranted in this specific instance is that the Violet Crown Clubhouse, its Shop the Block permit and attached sound impact plan set a precedent that should not be allowed to stand. Allows a use that should never have been permitted in the first place. The permit allows the exclusive private usage of space dedicated to other essential public uses, health and safety, in direct contradiction of established commercial code. If the codes aren’t there to be enforced; if the most essential parts of the codes, health and safety, are subject to arbitrary reversal for private gain, then why have codes at all? What business are we really engaged in if health and safety are things we can just set aside for personal gain?

I thank you for the time you spent reading this and look forward to your prompt response to the concerns I have raised here. 

Unpowered Center

This is the way I saw the structure when I first noticed it under construction two decades ago, driving through one of the many new power centers that were popping up at the edges of Austin. I didn’t see it as the empty shell that would soon be filled with consumer goods that the average tech junkie would be clamoring for. I saw it as it sits now, a building that was aged and worn from twenty years of hard use, cast aside like an empty cardboard container that only existed to hold a transitory meal of convenience. A tribute to the vanity of consumer culture, unloved and abandoned.

spotify

This is life in the city. The structures that seem to erupt suddenly out of the landscape and briefly exist as bustling hives of industry that are almost as suddenly vacant and decaying, a blight on the landscape that was perfectly fine the way it was before the bulldozers showed up to turn a farmer’s field into a parking lot. What, exactly, did this structure offer that wasn’t available at the local mall? The local mall that is now also abandoned or repurposed into something else?

Now the power centers sit just as idle as the malls started doing a decade and more ago, and the real estate developers are looking for the next big thing that they can get us all to go to and spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need. This wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t the same behavioral patterns that hollowed out the centers of our cities back in the sixties and seventies. Maybe it is time to stop seeking the next new, shiny thing and take a look around at what already exists that we can make suit the needs of the moment. Let the corporations and the land developers starve. The people don’t need them if they can’t serve the needs of today.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Constitutional Law

For any #MAGA out there. You know who you are.

Trumpconlaw is another podcast hosted by Roman Mars of 99% Invisible fame. When the show first started, I started tweeting out my own version of promos for each episode. The series of them can be found under the tag TrumpConLaw on this blog. This post should appear as the header for that series of tweets. As a consequence of this, it will move forward in time as new episodes are released. Here is the introductory episode of the series.

Intro to What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law – 06.07.17

So we’re going to learn the constitution together. Because of Trump. Because I need something to hold onto, and the constitution is the liferaft that our forefathers gave us. And dammit, I’m going to learn how it works.

Roman Mars

Here is the tweet that started it all,

Twitter

On a tangential track (or set of tracks) I am slowly working my way through the 99% Invisible archive. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever make it all the way through, but hope springs eternal. 99% Invisible is undoubtedly one of the best designed websites in existence. All Roman Mars podcasts and the podcasts that are presented through his distribution group, Radiotopia, are among the few podcasts out there that are easily shareable; easily shareable because the link to the hosting website is actually referenced in the feed address for the podcast you are listening to. I remain baffled as to why more podcasts do not design their feeds to be easily accessible in this way. In any case, give some of these podcasts a listen. It will take your mind off of the impending doom looming over the US today.


TED2015 Roman Mars Why city flags may be the worst-designed thing you’ve never noticed

09/22/19. I added the link to the introduction episode, the inspirational tweet, and Roman’s quote from that episode. 04/13/20. Moved to March 19th subsequent to the last episode at the time. Moved to November 11th when I found I had been missing episodes all summer.

The Meaning of Design

If you don’t stretch you won’t know where the edge is. I was constantly stretching into areas that I didn’t know very much about.

Designers don’t just look, but they see. They don’t just hear, but they listen. And they don’t just touch, but they feel. To design is to attempt to make a world a better place.

Sara Little Turnbull
The Mask – Throughline – May 14, 2020

Is it Natural or Gaudi?

Screencap of Google Home

Our Google Chromecast delivered this ambient photograph that the Wife and I could not identify when we wandered through the living room on Wednesday. Was it a gear? Was it an organic growth? We couldn’t tell, so I took a screenshot of it on my phone. I looked it up today, and it is Gaudi. Specifically Casa Batlló. That explains everything.

(Pinterest embeds in WordPress are almost mythical; as in, I can’t do a damn thing with them or modify them even though they show up. I’m not happy about it, but that is what it looks like.)

…but I hear you saying “who the hell is a Gaudi?” Ah. You aren’t an archiphile. Let me explain then. Antoni Gaudí is one of the more infamous architects in history. Rather than go through the entire story of his most famous achievement, I’ll let 99% Invisible explain it all to you. Here is the audio for the episode:

spotify99% Invisible – La Sagrada Familia

But the webpage located here has a photo history about the longest-running construction project in modern history, La Sagrada Familia. There is no way I can do that story justice no matter what I say here. Let Roman explain it to you with words and pictures. Or you could just watch this short video,

Basílica de la Sagrada FamíliaWe build tomorrow – Sep 25, 2013

I’ve never seen any of his work in person. Barcelona, Catalonia and Spain, where all of his structures are located, is out of my travel price range. But I’ve known of him by reputation for longer than I’ve actually known his name. Images of his works are almost unmistakably marked with the stamp of his unique genius. Only very recently has his style of design be utilized, and then only by a select few architects like Frank Gehry, are these flowing, natural designs practiced. It takes aviation design software to achieve what Gaudi did with strings and weights hanging from his ceiling back in the 192o’s.

That is Gaudi.

Postscript

I’m going to have to turn in my Alan Parsons Project fan credentials. I get a fail at recognizing album cover art:

spotify

That is a facet of Gaudi’s work on the album cover. I didn’t realize the album was named for him, either. How didn’t I know this album was about the architect? In my defense, I’ve never listened to this album before. I only figured out that what I casually read as gaudy in the record store (gaudy is not my thing) was Gaudi the architect while searching for “La Sagrada Familia Spotify” and trying to update the audio embed to Spotify from the Stitcher link I had relied on previously. Stitcher doesn’t like embeds anymore and Spotify auto-embeds in WordPress. It is simplicity itself to use their embeds, and hey, I found some more music to listen to while I was at it.

The rest of the Alan Parsons discography is already in my music. Eye In the Sky is one of my favorite albums. I need to stop now or I’ll end up on a Stargate or Helen Mirren tangent next.

Bridge

From everything that man erects and builds in his urge for living nothing is in my eyes better and more valuable than bridges. They are more important than houses, more sacred than shrines. Belonging to everyone and being equal to everyone, useful, always built with a sense, on the spot where most human needs are crossing, they are more durable than other buildings and they do not serve for anything secret or bad.

Ivo Andrić, Nobel prize winner for literature
John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge – Wikipedia

The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge – Roebling’s more famous suspension bridge. I found it a gripping read, much like another work by David McCullough, The Wright Brothers.

Accessible?

Support groups for the disabled are frequently a lifesaver for people who have limited access to humans with sympathy/empathy for what they are going through. I participate in several online support groups for Meniere’s, the invisible disability that I am cursed with. The image above/right was posted in one of the private groups I’m part of; and when I went looking for the image I discovered it was all over the web in various forms, many of them heartlessly defaced by trolls who think that all the disabled people should get out and get a job, you lazy bums!

In the Meniere’s group where the image was posted one of the commenters asked why the third guy from the right is leaning on an upside down dildo. He made me laugh with his question, and we riffed on that back and forth for awhile. But the question got me thinking, which is why I went online looking for the origin of the image and stumbled across all the troll variations of it and the casual cruelty of the unafflicted that comes with that territory.

International symbology is one of those things that, having once been an architect, I have an inside track on understanding. Here’s what the symbology means, officially:

  • Arm missing
  • Blind (universal symbol for services for the blind)
  • Crutches (injured get preferential access. Hospital signage)
  • Wheelchair (universal symbol of accessibility)
  • Walker (Accessibility, limited walking capability)
  • Elderly (Not a disability, dammit!)
  • Leg missing
  • Invisible Disability (You’re disabled? You look normal)

I had a hand in documenting signage for Austin-Bergstrom International Airport back in the day. I know the symbology; or rather, I know where to go looking for the official definitions for the symbols. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has over 6k images in their online database now. Here is a link to the symbol for priority access for elderly people. The American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) has a list of fifty symbols commonly used in transit hubs, the kinds of places where symbolic communication is essential since communication in a common language may not be possible.

Most of the symbols in the invisible disability image are not standard, but crafted in the helvetica style adopted by international symbology. There is no ISO symbol for missing limbs because that disability is too specific to a particular person not a generalizable disability requiring recognizable symbols that give directions. Well, maybe at the Veterans Administration where they have amputees waiting for years to get care. They probably have queue signage and queues that go on for blocks.

However, the illustrator that created the invisible disability image left off one of the most common disability symbols, the symbol for services for the deaf. It doesn’t fit the theme, but deafness is a pretty common disability and just leaving them out of the image sells their disability short. This is something I’m sensitive to since I’ll probably be deaf one day myself.

While looking for the origins of the illustration, I stumbled across the dildo dude, who can be seen in this Shutterstock image, as well as a couple of the other symbols. I also discovered a movement afoot to update the accessibility symbol with something that looks like it was designed this century, instead of last century, Accessibleicon.org. I can’t say I’m promoting their defacement of standard signage because I have an uncontrollable twitch when it comes to graffiti, an urge to reach out and snap off the arm of the person defacing public property. But I do like the updated symbology. I was never very fond of the old symbol in the first place.

Moneyland

Ordinary people wouldn’t want to live there. Because if you went there, there is no social life, there’s no… there’s no nothing. These… it’s almost dead environments. So what this is, it has turned parts of our major cities, places like London and New York, it’s turned them now into essentially bank accounts. Bank accounts in the form of bricks and mortar.

Oliver Bullough, author of Moneyland
Fresh Air – How Oligarchs, Kleptocrats & Crooks Stash Fortunes – May 1, 2019

Trump properties have over 700 units that are held by untraceable shell companies. Tell me again how he isn’t a crook. Caveat Emptor.