Between Beerland and the former Sidewinder music venue in the Red River Cultural District sits an abandoned alleyway that regularly attracts prostitution and drug trade, say local merchants who are now trying to install a 10-foot fence to deter the bad actors.
Addressing the adversity in the alleyway has become a priority of the Red River Merchants Association and the city’s Economic Development Department. Such attempts reflect a greater challenge faced by business owners in the area who say crime, especially organized crime, has gotten out of hand.
Cody Cowan, executive director of the Red River Cultural District Merchants Association, and Nicole Klepadlo from the city’s Economic Development Department laid out the public safety challenges Jan. 16 as they updated the Downtown Commission on plans for the fence.
“I have never seen a bigger and scarier challenge,” said Cowan, who has worked nearly two decades in the local music industry, most recently as the general manager of The Mohawk.
Cowan said the issue is a symptom of the district’s location and owed to three main groups of people that congregate in the area. He said there are the homeless people who are genuinely trying to obtain services from the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless as well as those who are mentally ill and suffering from drug addiction. Then, he said, there are the “criminal organizations and outfits” that prey on the two groups to feed their drug and sex trade.
He said the alleyways are the district’s version of broken windows, referencing the criminology theory that says broken windows and visible signs of rejection create an area that attracts crime and disorder. He said the homeless, visitors to the area and businesses “don’t stand a chance” against the criminal predators.
Commissioner David Gomez, Council Member Greg Casar’s appointee, said he was concerned that putting a fence in the alleyway would only push the criminal activity to another corner of the area.
Klepadlo said the fence, which the city has provided up to about $100,000 for, would only be a temporary solution. She said Beerland has examined the alley’s potential for activation but concluded it was too small for any seating or a refreshments truck.
The fence project has run into some red tape; however, the Downtown Commission voted all in favor, with one abstention, to support the protection of the alleyway and the district.
“The community is anxious to see something happen in this area,” commission Chair Joel Sher said.