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Update: City council pushes decision on Austin Opera House development to future meeting

A development proposal for a 4.6-acre plot just east of the South Congress district includes a plan to reopen the Austin Opera House. The building at 200 Academy Drive has housed offices for several businesses since the mid-1990s.

A plan to reopen the long-shuttered Austin Opera House as part of a proposed development project in South Austin was the subject of extended discussion at Thursday's city council meeting, with final decisions about the project pushed to future meetings.

Supporters and opponents of the project spoke during an afternoon session open to public comments. Among the supporters was renowned Austin musician Charlie Sexton, whose band the Arc Angels played a sold-out reunion concert at ACL Live on Monday.

“This is not a nostalgia request,” Sexton said, before reading a statement from Lukas Nelson, whose father, legendary songwriter Willie Nelson, owned the Opera House for many years in the 1970s-80s.

“The rich and soulful history of the Austin Opera House should guide the property to proper use in the realm of charity and music, in keeping with the character which made this city one of the most sought-after places to live in the nation.”

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Noël Bridges, a marketing director at Antone's whose husband, Will Bridges, is involved in the Opera House revival plan, read a message from Grammy-winning Austin guitarist Gary Clark Jr. in support of the project.

“With all of the change going on in the city, it is important for those who understand the culture of our city to solidify a sound staple in Austin that represents the live music capital of the world,” Clark’s statement noted. “Places like this made me more proud of where I came from, and excited to be part of a legendary community.”

Several neighborhood residents spoke in opposition to the plan. Marilyn Horton expressed concern that a large live music venue would have a detrimental impact on traffic and parking in the area adjacent to the development.

“This site does not have direct access to a major artery, no matter how much the developers imply that it does,” Horton said. “It’s totally unsuitable for a large music venue and bar.”

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Speaking remotely via livestream, former neighborhood resident John David Swann said that “the venue that used to be there caused insurmountable problems for the neighborhood because of a lack of vehicular connectivity and other reasons. It’s worse now in 2022, so it’s a terrible spot for a venue.”

Subsequent discussion between council members and project architect Richard Weiss involved deeper dives into traffic studies about the venue’s impact as well as plans for affordable housing that are part of the developer’s proposal.

Much of the controversy centers on the size of the music venue. The developers’ plan calls for a 17,500-square-foot venue; neighborhood residents have worked with their district’s council member, Kathie Tovo, to propose a 3,000-square-foot venue.

Before unanimously voting to continue consideration of the project in future meetings, the council briefly floated and then rejected an amendment that would have favored the 17,500-square-foot size. Ultimately, the language adopted for future discussions leaves the size of the venue to be determined.

The plan requires two more readings from the council before a final vote is taken. Because neighborhood residents filed a valid petition objecting to some of the details of the development, the project will require nine of 11 council members to vote in favor of the plan when the final vote is taken.