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East Austin theater at the center of code dispute

Tuesday, August 30, 2016 by Syeda Hasan

The Austin Code Department is responsible for making sure land is used for its intended purpose. So what happens when land-use rules are broken? One East Austin theater at the center of a code dispute is finding out the answer to that question.

There are a lot of ways to violate city code – for example, keeping junk in your front yard, having stagnant water on your property or running a business out of a residential space.

It’s that last one that got an East Austin home in trouble a few months ago. Over the weekend, the Austin American-Statesman broke the story. The property owner built a large backyard theater, an unwelcome addition for some neighbors.

“At night, movie theaters, bands playing, cars parked all over the neighborhood in the street,” said Robert Alvarado, assistant division manager for the code department, describing some of the complaints the department has received.

Alvarado said staff visited the property, known as the Sekrit Theatre, on June 26. Along with improper land use, he said, the venue had a number of violations, including drainage issues and dangerous structures on the property. He said those concerns would be valid even if the theater didn’t exist.

“The owner is working with the city staff to try to come into compliance,” Alvarado said. “He has time and efforts that he still needs to get through to get into compliance, but at this time that is an ongoing case, and we are confident that the owner is aware of what he needs to do.”

Alvarado said that if the code department gets a complaint about a violation, enforcement officers are obligated to visit the site. The property owner or resident can refuse to let them in, but they don’t always need to get inside to spot a violation.

For example, he said, investigators don’t need authorization for violations that are “considered public view” from a street or alley.

Some in Austin’s arts community are coming to the Sekrit Theatre’s defense. John Riedie, CEO of the Austin Creative Alliance, recently co-wrote a letter to City Council asking that it help save the venue. He believes the theater is a valuable part of Austin’s arts scene, and the code violations seem arbitrary, even punitive, he said.

“What my understanding is – having been to the property and attended some fundraisers there – is that it is up to code, and this is complaint-driven,” Riedie said.

Alvarado said the code department has yet to take any enforcement action against the property owner.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photo by Van Ort made available through a Creative Commons license.

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