The proposed project from property owner Spearhead Academy would create more than 100 housing units and tens of thousands of square feet of retail and open space. The 4.6-acre development at 200 Academy Drive would be centered around the opera house's revival as a 17,500-square-foot, 800-seat concert hall and music museum.
The project appeared before Austin's Planning Commission on Sept. 14 for commissioners' consideration of an amendment to the South River City neighborhood plan and related zoning change that would allow for the applicant's envisioned redevelopment. Speaking for the project, Richard Weiss of Weiss Architecture Inc. highlighted the defunct venue's decadeslong history in the Austin live music scene as a key reason for revitalization, along with its potential housing additions to the growing corridor.
“200 Academy is a rare opportunity to re-establish a historic music venue in its original location in the heart of the city with a new residential buffer," Weiss said.
Originally a motel ballroom and club established as the Texas Opry House, the venue grew over the years and attracted dozens of big-name musicians and enthusiastic crowds to its 42,000-square-foot hall before its closure in the 1990s, Weiss said. The old opera house no longer hosts concerts and is now home to Arlyn Studios and a parking lot Weiss labeled as a "development canyon" near downtown.
While Weiss pointed to the facility's past use as a basis for its comeback, issues related to neighborhood planning rose to the top during the September city planning review. The property at the corner of Academy Drive and Melissa Lane is subject to development limitations set through the Fairview Park Neighborhood Conservation Combining District finalized in 1986, restrictions Weiss asked planning commissioners to consider removing.
The plan has generated some concern from its South River City neighbors as well, several of whom formed a committee to oppose a venue project they said would bring traffic, noise and disturbances to their neighborhood.
While portions of South Congress nearby have seen heavy development additions in recent years, the concert hall and housing project would be set back from the main corridor and accessible only by the residential Academy Drive. That separation and the potential fallout from a live music venue led neighbors at the Sept. 14 meeting to speak against the project while supporting the future redevelopment of the space overall.
“We just could find no justification for a major music venue coming off of a local neighborhood street," said Laura Toups, a resident of Le Grande Avenue.
Brian Beattie, an area resident who said he performed at the old opera house, was one of several other locals who also spoke to the proposal. Beattie said that despite the venue's sentimental aspects, past concerts and crowds were something nearby neighbors had to endure rather than celebrate—a trend he does not want to see brought back.
"There are many wonderful shows people remember for many years there, but there was a parallel history of the neighborhood having to, well, basically fight against what was happening at night," Beattie said.
Planning commissioners were also split on the case's merits and the 200 Academy team's ask for neighborhood plan and zoning adjustments. Discussion and a series of votes saw some members vocally support the full redevelopment plan, while others called for a reduced footprint or a complete reworking of the proposal.
The project was supported by commissioners including Awais Azhar and Joao Paolo Connolly, who credited the plan's preservation of the historic site's vibrancy, addition to the city's live music landscape, nearby transportation access and housing. Several commissioners who were in opposition echoed some reservations over neighborhood disruption and character and a lack of a more extensive housing component.
“We haven’t heard anything about affordability. ... This needs to be scrapped tonight," Commissioner Jennifer Mushtaler said. "I think this is a good opportunity to bring in the kind of housing that we keep talking about we want to see more of, particularly when we’ve got a neighborhood that is in support of that. I think this is a missed opportunity."
The commission eventually moved to consider the project team's full plan amendment and rezoning requests as well as an option with reduced development limits based on staff and commissioner input. Both options failed in split votes with several supporters, opponents and abstentions, leading commissioners to eventually approve postponing a final decision until their Oct. 12 meeting.
“I strongly think that there is a way to solve this puzzle to kind of revive a historic music venue location but do it in a way that’s respectful to the neighborhood’s concerns so that we don’t just go back to what everyone fondly remembers as a very noisy, trashy but fun place to be. But maybe not a fun place to live," Commissioner Grayson Cox said.