Willie Nelson, Freddy Fletcher, partners in Austin City Limits Studio Theater Project

Sunday, December 03, 2006

He played the “Austin City Limits” pilot in 1974, and when the venerable KLRU music program unveils its new downtown home on Second Street in 2010, Willie Nelson is a safe bet to christen that stage as well.

After all, he’ll co-own the joint.


Jay Janner

Nelson and nephew Freddy Fletcher will be partners in the studio/nightclub project with majority owner Austin-based Stratus Properties Inc. Stratus will build the space as part of a $225 million mixed-use project that will include a 35-story tower (up from previous plans for a 32-story project) with 200 luxury condominiums atop a 250-room W Hotel, a new home for the Austin Children’s Museum, shops and restaurants.

Unofficially dubbed Austin City Limits Studio Theater, the $15 million, 2,000-capacity venue will serve as a soundstage approximately 40 nights a year when “ACL” tapes and transform into a musically diverse House of Blues-style club the rest of the time. The capacity doubled from earlier plans when a balcony was added and the space was reconfigured.

The new venue is expected to raise the show’s profile and provide locals and tourists a destination entertainment attraction in a venue that will hold more than five times the audience the show can accommodate in its existing cramped quarters on the University of Texas Campus. 

West Hollywood-based architectural firm Rios Clementi Hale Studios, whose credits include a child care center for Warner Brothers and a dining terrace for the upscale Westfield Century City mall in Los Angeles, has been tapped to create the interior design.

“What I liked about Rios Clementi is that they’re interested in being respectful to the long history of ‘Austin City Limits,’ ” said Beau Armstrong, chief executive of Stratus, which last year won a bid to purchase the vacant property, known as Block 21, from the City of Austin. Plans call for a photo gallery of past shows of television’s longest running live music program and a store to sell ACL souvenirs and memorabilia.

The licensing arrangements with “Austin City Limits,” a brand that has gotten stronger with the success of the music festival that bears its name, are still being worked out, Armstrong said, although the show is expected to share in the proceeds.

“Plus they get a new studio,” Fletcher added.

Groundbreaking for the mixed-use development is scheduled this summer in the block between Lavaca and Guadalupe streets across from Austin City Hall.

“It’s very exciting to be in on something from the ground up,” Fletcher said. “When I brought the idea to Willie a few years ago, he loved it.”

The flexibility of the upcoming facility’s floor plan is key, Fletcher said.

“Shows can be seated or not seated. We can move the stage to the center of the room. We can produce live TV shows. We’ve even been talking to theater consultants about doing off-Broadway musicals.”

Fletcher said the facility echoes the multiuse venue Nelson envisioned in the Austin Opera House, which the singer owned in South Austin from 1974 to 1989. With a recording studio next door wired to the stage, the Opera House on Academy Drive hosted historic live recording sessions by Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Waylon Jennings and others.

Armstrong said his development team, which has scouted similar-sized venues, such as the Joint in Las Vegas and the Nokia Theater in New York, has been advised by concert giant Live Nation, which recently acquired House of Blues for $350 million. Armstrong said he is close to reaching an agreement with a major concert promoter to operate the venue, but he declined to name it.

Fletcher said W Hotels was “over the top excited” to be neighbors with Willie, a national folk hero whose appeal cuts a wide swath.

“Our quest for the perfect address in Austin has been rewarded with this unique location at the center of Austin’s highly successful Second Street District,” Ross Klein, president of W Hotels Worldwide, said in a statement. The swanky hotel will officially announce plans for its maiden Austin location today. “This neighborhood is now the hub of Austin’s downtown and continues to attract new restaurants, retail, office and residential projects. We’re thrilled to do our part to attract folks downtown, whether to live, visit, work or play.”

The hotel will include a restaurant, a theme bar, two swimming pools, a fitness center, a 7,000-square-foot spa and extensive indoor and outdoor meeting and banquet space. Two additional restaurants, plus a club overlooking a plaza, will be part of 28,000 square feet of retail in the project.

Operators have not yet been chosen, although Armstrong hopes to attract local veterans for a sushi restaurant and a steakhouse.

Prices for the condos will range from just under $400,000 for a small one-bedroom to several million for the larger penthouses. Condo residents will have access to the hotel’s 24-hour concierge service, which, according to W Hotels, can provide guests whatever they want, “from a pair of running shoes at 2 a.m. to private jet service.” mcorcoran@statesman.com; 445-3652

snovak@statesman.com; 445-3856

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