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Planning Commission OKs new rule for theatres

Thursday, June 12, 2008 by Austin Monitor

Responding to a request to help a local theatre, the Planning Commission has endorsed a proposed change to the portion of the city code dealing with building height restrictions. The proposal would allow for a specific part of public theatres to exceed the normal height restrictions in certain zoning districts by 33 percent.


The proposal is crafted to deal with a unique need of performing arts theaters to quickly move scenery during performances. “A fly tower is the area behind and above the stage where set pieces and related equipment are stored and flown on and off the stage. To serve its purpose, the fly tower has to be tall enough to allow for adequate storage and movement of materials without the audience seeing it,” Watershed Protection and Development Review Assistant Director Bobby Ray explained to the commission. “There’s no standard height, but there is a general rule that the fly tower should be three times the height of the stage opening.” For a 30-foot stage, that would require a 90-foot fly tower area.


The City Council directed the staff to craft an amendment to the current code last month dealing with public theatres. That would include new construction at the Zachary Scott Theatre. “The voters have voted $10 million to help Zach build a new theatre and we’d like to give them a full fly. It makes a difference,” said project manager Susan Benz of the Benz Resource Group, which is working with the theatre on improvements authorized by the 2006 bond election.


“When you’re trying to produce significant theatrical work, it’s important to make sure the audience gets the full benefit of the delight and mystery that’s going on in the theatre. Every national theatre that’s under construction right now has a full fly. Theatres that have been operating like Zach has for 75 years have been making do without,” she said.


The ordinance change was needed, Benz said, because the theatre would likely not be able to obtain a variance from the Board of Adjustment. Commissioners had several questions about what types of theatres would be eligible for the new height-limit restrictions, pointing to facilities such as the Hyde Park Theatre near residential areas.


The code change is designed only to affect public or civic-sponsored theatres. “That makes me a little more comfortable than just any random theatre that might pop up in a neighborhood,” said Commissioner Tracy Atkins.


Not everyone was pleased with the idea of amending the code. “I’m appalled that public policy is being made for one particular entity. This will affect, ultimately, the whole city of Austin,” said Ora Houston. “A definition of a public performing arts space would be helpful. There are spaces in neighborhoods where these kinds of performing arts spaces could be placed.”


To address that concern, the commission proposed making the extra height subject to a conditional use permit and restricting it to specific zoning categories.  The commission approved a motion on a vote of 9-0 stipulating that the extra height would not be allowed in GR or LI zoning districts, but would be allowed as a conditional use in the CBD, DMU, CS-1, and some other high-intensity zoning districts. The commission also recommended that those fly towers still be subjected to compatibility requirements, which could mandate a lower height limit. The measure will go back to the City Council for approval later this month.

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