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Sushi concept too raw for Landmark Commission

Wednesday, November 26, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Historic Landmark Commission has postponed a request to enhance the rooftop deck of Austin’s oldest warehouse district building, after they heard promises that plans for a sushi restaurant could be toned down.

Nelson Davis Warehouse, located at 117 W. 4th St., might best be known as the former home of the Old Spaghetti Warehouse. In 2012, commissioners approved a rooftop use on the building, as long as the roof structure was set back 20 feet and the canopy set back 15 feet from the edge of the building. Now the rooftop has a new tenant, and it is hoping to extend the canopy, erect umbrellas, hang lights and demolish the existing storefront on the roof. The tenant has also proposed several signs.

Commissioner Terri Myers remembered the case in 2012.

“We thought we were giving a lot to give them a rooftop deck,” said Myers. “This is really something I had misgivings about at the time.”

Though staff was in support of demolition of the storefront and construction of the new storefront, Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky said they had “definite reservations about recommending approval of anything else.”

“This is going against what the commission authorized and made clear not even four years ago,” said Sadowsky.

“When the commission gave the initial approval of this project during the renovation of this project back in 2012, y’all were very clear about this rooftop use being set back and not visually intrusive,” said Sadowsky, who worried that the request would make the rooftop use “much more visual.”

“I understand that if you’ve got a rooftop use, you want people to know that you are up there, but I think that there are other ways of doing that,” said Sadowsky. “I think the most important thing is the canopy needs to stay where it is.”

Staff recommended denial of the extension of the canopy, umbrellas and pendant lighting.

John McCall, who represented Benihana Inc./Raw Sushi Restaurants, explained that they had only been involved in the project for the past few months, so the history of the building was fairly new to the company.

McCall said that the company understood the need to keep structures set back, but hoped that the commission understood the need for shade on the deck.

“It’s a very warm climate,” said McCall, who described the umbrellas as attractive with muted light.

“They are very expensive umbrellas, but they also come down. So on days or times that you would not need that, we don’t want that up … We want our patrons to have the sun, to enjoy the sky, to enjoy the skyline,” said McCall.

Two of the proposed signs – one that would be over a door, and one blade sign – were fine by Sadowsky as long as the internal lighting was eliminated. McCall said the company had already started reworking the sign design and had no problem eliminating the internal illumination.

“This is a very important building,” said Sadowsky. “And it’s one that I think most of us old-timers in Austin remember as one we really had to fight to save, because it was going to come down. It is the oldest building in the Warehouse District by a good 10 years.”

Sadowsky praised the rehab of the building, but warned against losing the “momentum of that historic renovation” by approving the proposed signs as is.

The Historic Landmark Commission will consider the case again during its December meeting, where commissioners will see reworked plans for the signs as well as a new idea for the canopy.

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