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Historic Landmark Commission does not recommend historic zoning for Fourth Street properties

A brick building has a sign that says "Oilcan Harry's."
Patricia Lim
/
KUT
Oilcan Harry's is one of the buildings that would be partially demolished by development of a high-rise on West Fourth Street. The developer plans to keep the building's facade and to lease space in the new development to the business.

The buildings that house LGBTQ+ bars on West Fourth and Colorado streets in downtown Austin aren’t getting historic zoning — at least not for now. But it appears the buildings won’t be totally demolished as developers seek to build a high-rise on the block.

Houston-based developer Hanover Company is planning to build a 40-story mixed-use high-rise with 400 residential units at West Fourth and Colorado. The plan originally involved demolishing the buildings that currently house queer-friendly clubs Oilcan Harry’s, Coconut Club and Neon Grotto, sparking outrage from Austin’s LGBTQ+ community.

Now, the developer is proposing to only partially demolish the Fourth Street buildings and to keep their original facades intact as it builds the high-rise behind it. The Colorado Street buildings would still be totally demolished.

The Historic Landmark Commission was scheduled to decide whether or not to initiate historic zoning for the buildings on Wednesday night, which would protect the buildings from demolition. But that zoning would have to get final approval from the Austin City Council, and the commissioners said they don’t believe the City Council would agree to grant the historic status over the landowners’ wishes to build the residential complex.

We have very limited tools at our disposal,” Commissioner Kevin Koch said. “All we can do is recommend. After that, it's out of our hands.”

Instead of sending the project up the ladder, the commission voted to indefinitely postpone its decision. This way, city staff explained, the project would still come back to the Historic Landmark Commission if developers sway from their promises and decide to totally demolish the buildings. At that point, the commission would have another shot at initiating historic zoning.

Koch and other commissioners lamented their inability to outright protect these Warehouse District buildings and said they see the developer’s offers as the best possible scenario. Commission Vice Chair Ben Heimsath said an “economic tsunami” in Austin is threatening historic properties in the city, and there’s little the commission can do in the wake of that.

“This is an owner who has thrown us a lifeboat, and it may not be what we want, but … I think we should take it. I think it is the safest harbor for a perpetuation or continuation of the legacy in this area," he said.

David Ott with Hanover Co. said the company has been working with local organizations and the existing businesses that rent space on the block to figure out how to help preserve some of the area’s LGBTQ+ culture as development continues. It has offered a 25-year lease to Oilcan Harry’s, Austin’s longest-standing gay bar. During the high-rise construction, Oilcan would temporarily vacate the premises before moving back in. At the Historic Landmark Commission meeting Wednesday night, Ott said he is also talking with Neon Grotto and Coconut Club to see how they can be brought back into the space once construction is complete.

“By being part of a larger development above, we are able to transfer down to the ground floor some of those profits in order to create a subsidized rent structure for these businesses,” Ott said. “In terms of their long-term survival, economic survivability of these businesses, I believe that we are the best bet for this.”

But opponents feel the development would be a huge loss for the LGBTQ+ community. Several members of the public spoke at Wednesday’s meeting urging the commission to move forward with the historic zoning process. They pointed to the fact that the Warehouse District has been a space for the gay community to gather for decades, and a lot of it has been redeveloped over the years.

If we can't preserve what's left, one block, Lavaca to Colorado, alley to alley, what are we doing?” Titus Parkes said in front of the commission.

Parkes pointed out thousands of Austinites have signed an online petition to stop the project. It’s now acquired more than 4,700 signatures.

“I identify with the gay and lesbian community here, and I grew up on this street,” Parkes said. “I was there when nobody else was there; it was just the gays, and it was a hard thing to walk down there in the dark. … We have only one block left of historic architecture that thousands of Austinites have said is historic, and they want it preserved.”

Others said preserving these buildings is especially important because Austin doesn’t have an official gay district or landmarks commemorating the city’s LGBTQ+ history.

“Today is the first day of Pride Month, and we are still fighting an ancestral fight to stay visible,” Miriam Conner, who serves on the board of Preservation Austin, told the commission. “Today you are not only making choices based on our history, but you're making choices, lasting choices, for our history's future.”

Preservation Austin, a local nonprofit, sent a letter to the Historic Landmark Commission this week, urging it to reject demolition of the buildings and support historic zoning.

“The Warehouse District has been home to a vibrant queer community for many decades, and within its walls and on its streets the very history of Austin’s LGBTQIA community has been written,” Board President Linda Jackson wrote. “To deny the very significant community and cultural associations of these buildings while promising to protect a single bar is to misunderstand the plight of the LGBTQIA community to have its history recognized.”

But proponents of the plan, including the Austin LGBT Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association, see the project as a way to increase housing as Austin faces an affordability crisis while also maintaining the area’s character. The businesses affected by the development have also spoken in favor of the plan.

Scott Neal, a managing member of Oilcan Harry’s, said in a statement last month that a historical designation won’t help keep Fourth Street’s identity alive. The historic designation doesn’t protect the business itself, he told KUT, and he doesn’t see Oilcan being able to afford the rent there long-term.

“While it can be jolting to see Austin changing, especially when it hits so close to home, the reality is in our downtown location we must work with these changing forces if our community wants to continue to have 4th street as place to call home,” Neal said.

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