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Austin Opry House development faces opposition from Planning Commission, neighbors

Monday, September 20, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

A mixed-use project seeking to revive historic music venue Austin Opry House ran into concerns Tuesday from the Planning Commission, which voted to postpone the rezoning case by a month to give the applicant, Richard Weiss, more time to work with neighbors worried about traffic and disruption from concertgoers.

Plans for the development at 200 Academy Drive – just off South Congress Avenue – include an 800-person concert venue, over 100 housing units and commercial space. But in order to build the project, Weiss needs to remove the Fairview Park Neighborhood Conservation Combining District overlay on the site and add Mixed-Use (MU) zoning. City staffers do not recommend removing the NCCD.

The Austin Opry House, originally called the Texas Opry House, had a storied history before closing in 1992. Willie Nelson held ownership in the venue, which hosted famous acts such as Ray Charles, Tina Turner and the Eagles, not to mention Nelson himself. Waylon Jennings and Stevie Ray Vaughan both recorded live albums there that went platinum and double platinum, respectively. Since the venue’s closure, it has been used as office space.

Weiss said the new Opry House, beyond reviving a piece of old Austin, would fill a gap in the Austin music scene: “There is no venue between 800 and 1,200 occupancy,” he said.

Laura Toups, representing the neighborhood contact team, opposed the project because of traffic and noise concerns. “We just could find no justification for a major music venue coming off of a local neighborhood street,” Toups said, adding that the neighborhood does support new housing, just not a music venue.

“We’re going to do everything we can to minimize traffic within the neighborhood,” Weiss said. The current design forces drivers exiting the venue to turn right on Academy toward Congress and away from the single-family neighborhood. The planned multifamily buildings would also serve as a buffer between the venue and the nearby single-family homes. More detailed, though still preliminary, plans for the development can be found here.

Weiss said that the NCCD severely limits the property and should not have been placed on the site in the first place. “As applied to 200 Academy, the restrictions are so great that the existing two-story development exceeds the NCCD limitations,” he said. “This has created the city’s largest historically zoned parking lot.” 

While some commissioners supported the project and rezoning request, others were sympathetic to traffic and noise concerns, opting for a more restrictive occupancy cap on the venue or even the removal of the venue altogether.

“I just feel like this needs to be scrapped tonight,” Commissioner Jennifer Mushtaler said. Instead of a music venue that would burden neighbors with traffic, Mushtaler said she wanted to see a project with more housing units, particularly income-restricted ones. 

Commissioner Joao Paulo Connolly disagreed. “The reason we’re not considering just putting all housing here is because this is a historic music venue,” Connolly said. “And we’re trying to preserve some of Austin, which has seen this rapid change, and particularly a venue like this, which is so closely connected to the essence of whatever that idea of an Austin was that attracted so many of us here.”

Commissioners made multiple motions in search of common ground. All failed, until a motion to postpone squeaked by with seven votes. 

“I strongly think that there is a way to solve this puzzle, to revive a historic music venue location, but do it in a way that’s respectful to the neighborhood’s concerns,” said Commissioner Grayson Cox, who made the motion to postpone. The commission will hear the case again on Oct. 12. The case’s City Council date has not yet been set.

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