Faster Than Sound: Neighbors Push to Limit Size of Austin Opera House Project

Traffic concerns clash with midsize venue vision at 200 Academy Dr. development

The future site of the 200 Academy development (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Among mixed-use plans for housing, shopping, a museum, and a recording studio at 200 Academy Dr., an envisioned music venue has become the sticking point. The development hopes to revive the former Austin Opera House club off South Congress. While the owners imagine a midsize destination comparable to the Paramount in capacity, neighbors angle for a smaller venue akin to the nearby Continental Club.

During initial approval of a first reading of plans back in January, City Council members indicated bargaining would be necessary between the disagreeing parties. Ahead of a second reading at the May 5 council meeting, neighbors suggest a compromise of two separate music venues, rather than a centralized larger one. The proposal was created by the Greater South River City Combined (GSRCC) Neighborhood Plan Contact Team, which includes residents near the project.

Specifically, they'd like to limit the primary venue to a 200-person capacity, similar to the Continental, "with an audience seating/standing area not to exceed 3,000 sq. ft.," according to the document, which the group has sent to Council. For the smaller secondary club, they suggest a space not exceeding 1,500 square feet, as a small listening room. Focusing on traffic concerns on the connecting Academy Drive, the proposal emphasizes that the site "is now only 4.6 acres, is now completely landlocked within the neighborhood, and has zero frontage on South Congress or any other major roadway" – unlike during Willie Nelson's Seventies ownership.

"We all agreed that we would love to have two small venues," says noted Austin musician and producer Brian Beattie, a member of the GSRCC contact team. "More local musicians would be employed by that, and the venues could stagger start and finish times. Think about how many more musicians in town are going to get to play at a 200-capacity venue, as opposed to a 1,000-capacity venue with mostly touring musicians."

Originally an event space attached to a south side motel, Nelson bought the property to debut the Austin Opera House (known colloquially as "the Opry House") in 1977 as a 1,700-capacity, 42,000-square-foot concert hall. Development owner Chris Wallin and his architect/agent Richard Weiss, a 30-year veteran of the Austin music scene and lead architect for Alamo Drafthouse, want to use the venue's original walls and stage, currently converted to office space, to build a new venue. In a response to the Chronicle, Wallin says they've already scaled down plans for a 17,000-square-foot venue that can accommodate 1,200 fans (similar to the Paramount). Their latest offer to neighbors reduces further to 13,500 square feet.

"The original capacity of the Austin Opera House was over 1,700 people and unfortunately a venue size of 200 people or less is not a reasonable compromise," writes Wallin. "We already have some great small clubs nearby on South Congress like the Continental Club and C-Boy's and I hope our community continues to support these businesses. Austin does not need another small club, but we do need a venue with a capacity of 800-1200 people."

According to the GSRCC's traffic study, the area will not safely allow for "overall entertainment-related uses" like a proposed venue, museum, and bar to exceed 10,000 square feet. The contact team commissioned their own study from engineering firm Pacheco Koch, paid for by Colin Corgan – owner of a huge, under-renovation Victorian home right behind the development. According to the group, 200 Academy's traffic study problematically "claimed that all concert traffic would be spread out evenly over a 24-hour period" and "based their assumptions on Covid-era traffic counts."

In response, Wallin writes that WGI Engineering Firm worked with the Austin Transportation Department for over a year to obtain approval for 200 Academy's traffic plan in May 2021. The development's plan makes a commitment to provide over $300,000 in additional neighborhood traffic improvements. He also said the study shows there will be "very little concert traffic" during typical rush hours, defined as 7am to 9am and 4pm to 6pm.

"I know some of the neighbors do not like the approval of this engineering traffic study, but our report followed all the rules and guidelines and was approved by Austin's traffic engineering department," he wrote. "In addition, this traffic study is for zoning only and we will have to revise and be approved again upon submission of our site plan and building permit."

From the neighbor perspective, the GSRCC proposal emphasizes: "The proposed large concert venue would create a dangerous mix of thousands of more vehicle trips on narrow and winding neighborhood roads … and the blocking of Music Lane, which turns into a fire lane and is the sole access point for fire trucks for numerous residences and businesses, including the Magdalena Hotel."

The adjoining Hotel Magdalena and Hotel Saint Cecilia signed on to neighbor efforts to impose limits on the development last month, according to city documents – though the Bunkhouse ownership group declined to comment further.

Weiss and Wallin want the property to be removed from the Fairview Park Neigh­bor­hood Con­ser­vation Combining District (NCCD), which limits the amount of residential density allowed on the site. In January, neighbors succeeded in filing a valid petition against removing 200 Academy from the NCCD, which requires the support of the owners of 20% of the land within 200 feet of the site. With the hotels' signing, they've since reached 46.46% of the land. Due to the petition, the developers need nine council votes to rezone, rather than six.

Despite the council obstacle, 200 Academy works the music preservation angle, as a mixed-use development actually incorporating a venue has been a long- discussed dream of local music advocates. The developers have teamed up with Freddy Fletcher, who founded Arlyn Studios on the same property in 1984, and his business partner Will Bridges. In early January, the studio encouraged supporters to email Council members to "Save Austin Opera House & Arlyn Studios," finding support from Willie Nelson, who is Fletcher's uncle, and the nonprofit group Austin Texas Musicians.

After polling members in January, ATM found 93% of members were in favor of the development if affordable housing is included. The plan has received SMART Housing certification from the city and would require 10% of any units built to be price-locked at 80% of Austin's median family income, or $79,100 for a family of four.

GSRCC member Beattie lives and operates his own recording studio very close to 200 Academy. The home was purchased in 1993 by his wife – who he says experienced the tail end of the venue's disruption to the neighborhood, by then called the Terrace. The producer has actually previously recorded at Arlyn, including the Dead Milkmen's classic "Punk Rock Girl" during sessions for their 1988 album, Beelzebubba.

He's frustrated by messaging that the fate of the on-site studio is tied to the size of the proposed venue, emphasizing that the GSRCC proposal advocates for the preservation of Arlyn with no limits on expansion of studio space. Beattie has accepted the fact that his studio, like Arlyn, may be unusable for some years due to construction noise – whether 200 Academy includes a venue or not.

"It's a big, complex situation, but it just seems so comical that they're like, 'You're against Austin music,'" says Beattie. "Like, that's what I do. I do the music. Arlyn's great, and everyone in the neighborhood has always loved it. It's nice that the venue was there, but it didn't just disappear by mistake, you know? Again and again, it just couldn't operate in a way that fell within what is legally allowed."

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Austin Opera House, Austin Opry House, Richard Weiss, Brian Beattie, Freddy Fletcher, Will Bridges, Greater South River City Combined Neighborhood Plan, Arlyn Studios

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