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Former Austin Opera House may become a music venue again

Site of the old Austin Opry building
Nathan Bernier
A developer plans to turn the site of the old Austin Opera House into a music venue with retail space and housing.

The Austin City Council voted to change zoning restrictions for a property off South Congress that was home to the Austin Opera House. The change will allow building taller, denser structures and reopening the opera house as a music venue — though with a smaller capacity.

The Austin Opera House was built in 1974 and hosted artists like B.B. King and U2. It closed in the 1990s and is currently being used as office space and a music recording studio. Chris Wallin, who bought the property in 2012, wants to build apartments, retail space and revamp the opera house itself.

But zoning changes in 1986 added a Neighborhood Conservation Combining District, or NCCD overlay, on the property. The overlay created restrictions on developing the land and prohibited live music.

Wallin sought to have the overlay removed and the 4.5-acre property returned to its original zoning. With the restrictions, he said, only 22 housing units could be built per acre. The original zoning would allow somewhere between 36 two-bedroom apartments and 54 efficiencies per acre.

“This is the part that’s difficult,” Wallin told KUT in May. “We need housing and yet it’s an extremely difficult process to try to build on a 4.5-acre lot. We’re having zero displacements. We’re not moving anyone out. We’d just be providing additional housing.”

Wallin said 10% of the units would qualify as affordable housing, and he hopes that would enable musicians to live on the property.

Wallin also said while he wanted the overlay removed, he thinks the property’s buildings and structures should be set back appropriately and not looming large.

“We want it to blend in,” he said. “We want to be good neighbors.”

Neighbors concerned about noise and traffic gathered enough signatures to require at least nine of the 11 City Council members to agree to the zoning changes for the property. The council approved the changes unanimously Thursday with Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison not present for the vote.

Wallin initially wanted to restore the Austin Opera House to its full capacity. The 45,000-square-foot structure could hold more than 1,700 people.

Zach Ernst, who books artists at Antone’s and The Paramount Theatre, told council members he wanted to see a venue of that size.

“In my current role booking multiple venues that host local and touring bands, I can say firsthand that our calendars are generally full from September through May,” Ernst said. “And we pass on a lot of music shows by local bands because we don’t have the dates available. There is a need for another 1,200-capacity room in Austin — especially one with a commitment to local artists like the opera house will be.”

But neighbors like Brian Beattie expressed concerns Thursday about the development.

“I know what we need now is some kind of compromise,” Beattie said. “But I want to point out that we have been agreeable to all increases in housing density. We support the drive for affordable housing. We’ve agreed to a 60-foot office building. Our only objection is to the large-event-size venue.”

After negotiating during the City Council meeting, both parties agreed to a smaller floor space of 10,000 square feet.

Wallin will need to present a building and site plan to the city’s Planning Commission for approval. He has said it could take three to four years for the project to be complete.

He said he's looking forward to the next phase of the project.

“We did not receive everything we requested last night,” Wallin said. “But are optimistic about what can be achieved and look forward to bringing music back to Music Lane.”

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Sangita Menon is a general assignment reporter for KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @sangitamenon.
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