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.
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.
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.