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East Austin Theater at the Center of Code Dispute

Megan K. Miller via Twitter
The Sekrit Theater in East Austin is staring down a possible closure after several code compliance-related issues.

Austin’s Code Department is responsible for making sure land is used for its intended purpose. So what happens when those rules are broken? One East Austin theater is finding itself at the center of a code dispute.

There are a lot of ways to violate city code – for example, junk in your front yard, 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. The property owner built a large outdoor theater in the backyard, an unwelcome addition for some neighbors. Robert Alvarado, Assistant Division Manager for Austin’s Code Department, describes some of the complaints they got.

“At night, movie theaters, bands playing, cars parked all over the neighborhood in the street,” Alvarado said.

Alvarado said staff visited the property, known as the Sekrit Theater, 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 if code 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.

“Any of our investigations we can do that we don’t need the authorization for is some of them where that’s considered public view, street and alley,” he said. 

Some in Austin’s arts community are coming to the defense of the Sekrit Theater.

John Riedie, CEO of the Austin Creative Alliance, recently co-wrote a letter to City Council, asking them to help save the venue. Riedie said the code violations seem arbitrary, even punitive.

“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.

He said the theater is a valuable part of Austin’s arts scene. Alvarado said the code department has yet to take any enforcement action against the property owner. 

This story is part of a reporting partnership with KUT and the Austin Monitor.