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Historic Landmark Commission unanimously votes to initiate historic zoning process for Fourth Street

The rainbow crosswalk on at the intersection of Fourth and Colorado streets in Austin.
Patricia Lim
Historic Landmark commissioners said they believe more can be done to protect Austin’s LGBTQ+ district from development.

Austin's Historic Landmark Commission unanimously voted to initiate historic protections for properties on Fourth and Colorado streets. Wednesday night's decision came in response to a proposal from developers to build a high-rise tower that would alterthe city's iconic LGBTQ+ district.

For the development to move forward, it needs the commission's approval. The commission now must evaluate whether the strip of buildings at the intersection, which are nearly 100 years old, should be deemed historic.

Austin-based real estate firm Metcalfe Wolff Stuart & Williams is proposing to build a 40-story tower with 400 residential units on the Fourth and Colorado block. Under the plan, queer-friendly clubs Coconut Club and Neon Grotto would have to leave their current spots. Oilcan Harry's would be allowed to stay under a new lease with subsidized rent offered by the Hanover Co., the project's developer.

Hanover and Metcalfe said their plans offer a way to preserve some of the neighborhood's historic structure. The development would reconstruct the brick facades of the buildings along Fourth Street, and ensure a 25-year lease with Oilcan, Austin's longest-standing gay bar.

The Historic Preservation Office staff said the buildings do not technically meet the requirements for historic landmark designation. They recommended the commission approve the developers' proposal. But the commissioners said they believe more can be done to preserve the district.

"This is just too special a place," Commissioner Kevin Koch said. "If it were to end here, I don't think the Planning Commission and City Council would feel the pain that's being experienced here — and is inevitable in the Red River Cultural District, Sixth Street, South Congress and on the Drag. There are some very special places that make Austin what it is and this is one of them."

What does the Fourth Street district mean to Austin's LGBTQ+ community?

The vote came after people testified for and against the development. Scott Neal, managing member of Oilcan Harry's, said he did not support designating the building historic. He said if it were, the business would likely not be able to afford its location in the coming years as property taxes soar.

More than 10 Fourth Street patrons pleaded with the commissioners to stop the development and recognize the district's valueto the LGBTQ+ community.

"For the past decade my friends and I have found safe spaces on Fourth Street, where we could fully be ourselves regardless of gender identity ... and without worry of being harassed or of being in danger of physical violence," Daniella Silva said. "The LGBTQ+ community deserves to have our history and culture not only preserved but uplifted."

The commissioners are expected to vote June 1 on whether they recommend historic designation for the properties. If they vote to designate the district, the recommendation will then need to be considered by the Planning Commission, and eventually, City Council.

Danielle Lopez is a former assistant digital editor at KUT.
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