As Austin continues to grow, it is inevitable that its unique character will change. But as efforts to save a neighborhood skateboard shop show, the standard narrative of new development pushing out beloved local institutions is more nuanced — as is how the city is navigating this complex issue.
On any given day, the No-Comply skateboard shop, located a few blocks west of the State Capitol in Austin, is buzzing with a diverse crowd. Yes, there are plenty of teens and kids, but you’ll see people of all ages, as well as all genders, races, and ethnicities. On weekends and on weekdays after 3 p.m. (when school’s out), the place truly becomes base camp for the Heath Eiland and Morgan Moss BMX Skate Park around the corner. The shop is a sanctuary for the skate community, providing a welcoming place to get a drink of water, fix a busted wheel, or catch up with friends. Even when the rest of the businesses on 12th Street are closed, No-Comply often hosts art shows, film screenings, or fundraisers. During the past two years, they’ve raised over $200,000 for the Austin Food Bank. With the shoe and skateboard collabs the shop has created, it has become a destination for a national — and even global — skate community, all from a small, nondescript, one-story commercial building.
As Professor Bret Johnson, director of the UT Austin Michener Center for Writers, put it: “No-Comply is serving its community like a library or a youth, senior, or cultural center — by bringing people together in a safe place. It affords everyone the opportunity to express themselves, broaden their perspective, and to engage with the larger community in meaningful ways.” Johnson emphatically made this statement to Austin’s Historic Landmark Commission at the July 26, 2021, public hearing considering the demolition of the 3,000-sf building that contains the shop.
It’s difficult to divorce the demolition of the building from the cause that is No-Comply. No-Comply’s owner is Elias Bingham, an unassuming ex-pro skater who in 2006 opened the first No-Comply across town on South First Street. After learning that a skate park would be built at House Park on the east side of North Lamar between 12th and 15th Street, he proceeded to stalk the surrounding neighborhood in search of a new location. He finally caught a break in 2007, when the clothing store that had occupied No-Comply’s current location on West 12th Street closed.
“When a skate shop like No-Comply is located a block from a skate park, it’s really rare and becomes a destination for the skate community on what could be considered a global level,” says Bingham. “It brings people and business to Austin. And the design of this skate park is special because it’s welcoming to all levels. I knew we had to be near to create the kind of community we now have.”
However, in 2009, Austin Community College (ACC) bought the building No-Comply is now located in, along with all the other buildings on 12th Street between Shoal Creek and West Avenue.
ACC certainly cares about historic preservation. They’ve spent more than $50 million lovingly restoring their Rio Grande Campus, which makes use of the old Austin High School, a 1915 structure renovated by Studio8 Architects in partnership with Overland Partners, Hutson Gallagher, and Architexas. The college also renovated the nearby gym with BLGY Architecture, and in a groundbreaking public-private partnership for Austin, it brought on Barnes Gromatzky Kosarek Architects to adaptively reuse the Highland Mall, transforming it into ACC’s Highland Campus.
Bingham says he would check in with ACC periodically about their plans, but there had never been word of any immediate need to vacate. That’s why there was shock when he came to work one day last July to find a demolition notice posted on a pole outside the shop. Bingham informed the skate community, and the community rallied, equating the fate of the building with the fate of the skate shop.
Neil Vickers, executive vice chancellor of finance and administration for ACC, was one of two people speaking in favor of the demolition at the July 26, 2021, hearing. He explained that ACC bought the buildings on 12th Street with the singular purpose of using the space to accommodate the growth of the Rio Grande Campus, which also houses offices for the Army Futures Command. He expressed surprise at the level of support for No-Comply and stressed that the business should be seen as a separate issue from the fate of the building.
That is true, but it is also true that in the 14 years since ACC purchased the block with its stated intent, much has changed in the neighborhood. Capital Metro is planning a station a few blocks away at 12th and Guadalupe. Transwestern Development is building a tower with 147 microapartments across the street, bringing residential back to the area. And that’s just the start. It seems the hearing was the catalyst that provided ACC the opportunity to connect its students and leadership with a place right at their doorstep where young people were gathering to celebrate an activity that is now recognized as an Olympic sport.
Austin has certainly seen its share of cultural landmarks come and go. Securing official historic landmark status is one tool to keep a cultural space intact, and places like Cisco’s restaurant or Hillside Farmacy in East Austin have seen the benefits. Others — like Liberty Lunch, Threadgill’s, and Salvage Vanguard Theater — have not.
According to Historic Landmark Commissioner Ben Heimsath, AIA, the commission takes its job very seriously and considers more than preserving historic buildings in its reviews. “We’re looking at what is worthy of historic note in communities,” he says. “It’s not always about whether the building has been there for 50 years and is one of the last examples in Austin of that kind of building. There are some properties where significant cultural connections or specific important events occurred. Yes, it’s harder for these younger properties. But as stewards of these special places, we have to make decisions that will affect whether the next generation will see them or not.”
Heimsath says his proudest moments are when the commission can educate building owners about the treasure they have or bring them around to take pride in their building receiving landmark status.
Austin city leaders have long been working to keep cultural places alive. Back in 2012, the Imagine Austin plan recognized that “creativity is a cornerstone of Austin’s identity and economic prosperity, and arts, culture, and creativity are essential keys to the City’s unique and distinctive identity.” In the summer of 2016, the Cultural Asset Mapping Project created a community-driven database of over 3,000 cultural spaces and organizations, including theaters, music venues, and other local landmarks. Its directory still exists, but the project is now closed. As a for-profit business for which arts or music is not the central purpose, No-Comply would not have been eligible for inclusion.
Nor would it have fit into some of the programs other cities have put in place to encourage inclusion of cultural spaces in new developments. Cities like Boston, New York, San Diego, and Nashville issue mandates or offer incentives to developers. For example, Seattle’s Build Art Space Equitably (BASE) program was launched in 2018 by the city’s Office of Arts and Culture. It offers development incentives and permit streamlining for projects that include “art space” such as galleries, museums, theaters, and artist studios through a certification program that mirrors the structure of the LEED program for sustainability.
Austin is looking at these types of programs and others across the nation. Anne Gatling Haynes is an architect and the chief transactions officer for the new Austin Economic Development Corporation (AEDC), which was established in 2020. Gatling Haynes was also the first employee of the AEDC’s new Cultural Trust, which seeks to purchase music venues and other cultural assets to keep them alive. She agrees that a shop could well be a center of culture.
“I grew up in a retail environment and know what community-builders retail can be,” says Gatling Haynes. “Especially here in Austin, there’s more of a recognition that the making of art is broad. A skate shop could fit in that definition.” Her work is just getting off the ground, and while it’s focused now on saving places that are dedicated to music and art, the time may come when the criteria will broaden. For now, commercial spaces must meet the AEDC’s criteria of serving primarily as a live music venue, performance venue/theater, or museum/art gallery to qualify.
There are dollars in play here as well, and they are precious. Music venues have been especially hard-hit during the pandemic, and the city of Austin has provided millions of dollars in rent support and other grants through its Creative Space Disaster Relief Support Program and related initiatives. “The universe of cultural support is rich in Austin,” says Gatling Haynes. “We’re just getting started, and we recognize the gaps. But it’s all toward the same big goal. With the Cultural Trust, we’re looking toward stabilizing our cultural organizations and building an infrastructure of city-owned cultural buildings.”
On August 20, No-Comply posted on Instagram that ACC had postponed the filing for the demolition permit and that the college not only committed to let the shop stay until they found a new home, but they were also interested in partnering with them to find a new location and working together with the community moving forward. “Austin Community College took notice and was introduced to us and the skateboard community,” the post says. “They now see the value in our community and even more so in what we can do together in collaborative efforts moving forward.”
It seems like No-Comply will survive and thrive, thanks to its landlord’s new acknowledgement. In the meantime, the little skate shop on 12th Street continues to increase its cultural reach. No-Comply, along with skateboarding shoe company Vans, is currently the presenting sponsor for an exhibition at Austin’s The Contemporary entitled “Daniel Johnston: I Live My Broken Dreams,” which closes March 20.
But other similar places have their own uphill battles. Even the skate park itself, now a treasured space, faced battle in its creation. The old recreation center that used to be on the site was beloved by some, who fought to keep it, even though the building was poorly maintained and located in a floodplain. With the community engaged, forward-thinking city leaders saw the future value of the vision and followed through. The pains of a growing Austin are very real.
But city leaders recognize the struggle and are open to the changing landscape. As Bret Johnson says: “Because our definitions of culture and community are necessarily — and beautifully — fluid and flexible, our definition of cultural community spaces must also enjoy the capacity for progress. The lifeblood of culture and community is curiosity and inclusivity, so while the longstanding conceptions of what constitutes a cultural community space serve only to uphold the status quo, a broadening of the shapes, locations, and complexions of the spaces would more fully and fairly reflect the communities they serve.”
Ingrid Spencer is the executive director of AIA Austin and the Austin Foundation for Architecture.