Jan 24, 2022 - News

Clash arises over proposed revival of Austin Opera House

An overhead view of the property at 200 Academy Drive.
An overhead view of the property at 200 Academy Drive, home to the old Austin Opera House — and a parking lot. Courtesy Weiss Architecture.

An old Austin blues hall is at the center of a classic neighborhood clash.

Driving the news: A proposed development just off South Congress Avenue would revive the Austin Opera House, a concert hall once owned by Willie Nelson. But the project faces stiff opposition from some neighbors, per an Austin Chronicle report.

The backstory: Long ago a meeting space attached to a South Austin motel, Nelson bought the property at 200 Academy Drive, adjacent to the present-day Hotel Saint Cecilia, and transformed it in 1977 into a 1,700-capacity concert hall.

Of note: Asleep at the Wheel's "Served Live" and Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Live Alive" albums include performances from the Opry House, as it was commonly known.

  • Iggy Pop, Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Eagles, Patti Smith, Muddy Waters, Lou Reed, King Crimson, Butthole Surfers, BB King, Tom Waits and Nelson himself played the space, per the Chronicle.

But Nelson sold the property in 1988, and by 1992, its days as a venue were done.

  • The stage still stands, with offices built atop it.

The developers, who want to add apartments and shops, say they don't need zoning changes.

Yes, but: The property falls under a special set of neighborhood restrictions that limits its development.

  • And buy-in from neighbors on any departure might be hard to come by.

What they're saying: "Traffic, noise, the selling of more alcohol, live music, and high density residencies with limited avenues of entry and exit is inappropriate planning for this neighborhood," Jane Thumond, a neighbor, wrote to city officials last year.

The other side: The Opera House "was one of the cornerstones of Texas music in its time," Freddy Fletcher, Nelson's nephew, told the Chronicle. "That history is really important to me, and if we don't preserve it, then shame on us."

By the numbers: Disputes include the size of a potential concert space, from 2,500 square feet favored by some neighbors to 17,000 square feet proposed by developers — enough to accommodate 1,200 fans — per the Chronicle.

What's next: The Austin City Council takes up the matter on Thursday. Developers need the support of nine members (out of 10, plus the mayor) to move forward with the project — a steep hill to climb given the clout of Central Austin neighborhoods.

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