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Austin Playhouse unveils plans for new theater at Mueller

Theater set for town center will have classrooms, gallery, offices, space for eatery or bar.

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Plans for Austin Playhouse's new theater at the Mueller development in East Austin call for a 17,000-square-foot, two-theater complex. Construction is set to start next year.

After nearly 10 years at its South Congress Avenue location, Austin Playhouse plans to build a new $4 million theater in the Mueller development in East Austin, theater officials said Friday.

Catellus Development Group, Mueller's master developer of Mueller, confirmed that it had signed a letter of intent with Austin Playhouse.

The theater would be in Mueller's town center, roughly north of Lake Park. The town center is planned to be a mix of retail, restaurant and entertainment venues. However, no date has been set to start that phase of the Mueller project.

"We're excited about the opportunities the Austin Playhouse would bring to Mueller," Catellus managing director Greg Weaver said. "The Austin Playhouse will help activate a new area of the Mueller community, draw new visitors to experience other elements of the development and provide another primarily nighttime venue to move Mueller toward a 24/7 community."

The community theater group plans to build a 17,000-square-foot, two-theater complex with classrooms, a gallery, offices and ground-floor space to sublet to a bar or restaurant.

Austin Playhouse isn't the only theater group in town with plans for a new performance venue. The long-established Zach Theatre, formerly Zach Scott Theatre, has raised more than $16 million toward the $20 million 430-seat Topfer Theatre planned for the corner of South Lamar Boulevard and West Riverside Drive. Groundbreaking for the Topfer is expected in 2011.

Don Toner, executive director of Austin Playhouse, said he expects construction to begin next year. He said the $4 million price tag includes about $2 million for the property and 100 parking spaces and $2 million for construction, fundraising and other project costs. The theater released renderings Friday for the facility designed by Dick Clark Architecture.

Toner said that $265,000 in pledges and cash has been raised so far.

Founded in 2000, Austin Playhouse occupies a 6,000-square-foot space in the Penn Field development for which it pays $150,000 in annual rent. It maintains a 146-seat and a 56-seat theater. The organization's budget is $680,000. The troupe produces nine productions of mostly mainstream plays. Its lease will expire in April.

Toner said he is also in talks with Artspace, a Seattle-based nonprofit developer of arts-focused mixed-use developments, to build four stories of artist lofts above the theater. Earlier this year, Austin Playhouse paid Artspace, which has not signed on to the lofts project, for a pre-feasibility study, Toner said.

Toner was previously artistic director of Live Oak Theatre and the historic State Theatre when it underwent a $3.5 million renovation for which the city provided $1.9 million in bond money. (The State, now operated by the neighboring Paramount Theatre, is shuttered after flooding in 2006 caused extensive damage.) Toner left the State in 1999.

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699