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Photo by City of Austin

Historic Landmark Commission looks to save Rainey Street’s Bungalow

Monday, May 4, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

For years, 90-92 Rainey St. has been home to the Bungalow and the Container Bar, but those two nightlife fixtures could soon be replaced with a 53-floor high rise.

However, the Historic Landmark Commission did not greet the project with approval at its meeting on April 27 and instead postponed the case until next month.

Urbanspace developers went before the commission to request permission to demolish the 1912 bungalow and construct a high-rise tower in its place. Without the approval of the commission, the developers will be limited in the scope of their project and may need to incorporate the bungalow into their designs.

Currently, modified designs for the tower do not include portions of the historic Bungalow bar structure. Instead, the design incorporates an altered metal shipping container to create a recessed bar space on the second floor of the building. The remainder of the building will be clad in glass with no acknowledgment of the historic character of its setting.

Commissioner Beth Valenzuela told the commission that when this project previously came before the commission’s Certificate of Appropriateness Committee, the applicant proposed elevating the Bungalow by two floors and incorporating it into the overall design of the modern tower. “We expressed that that would not be an appropriate solution,” Valenzuela explained. “And this is the solution they came back with.”

Kalan Contreras with the Historic Preservation Office told commissioners that the scale of the proposed high-rise precluded “the possibility of compatibility through design choices.”

Commissioner Kevin Koch said that the design “obliterated” the historic character of the property.

Rainey Street is a National Register Historic District that requires developers to adhere to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation when evaluating the suitability of new construction. Two of those criteria require that “New additions, exterior alterations, or related new construction shall not destroy historic materials that characterize the property” and “New additions and adjacent or related new construction shall be undertaken in such a manner that if removed in the future, the essential form and integrity of the historic property and its environment would be unimpaired.”

While staff comments noted that the new construction is differentiated from the historic architecture in the district, the comments also noted the building’s overall massing, size and scale “are not compatible with the surrounding historic structures in the district.”

Commissioner Ben Heimsath called the scale of the building “massive” and said, “I wonder if the integrity of the whole district is being called into question.” In recent years a number of high rises have gone up in the downtown bar district, altering the character of the neighborhood.

“Even though the district is compromised, I don’t think we need to make it easy,” said Commissioner Terri Myers.

The other commissioners agreed and unanimously voted to postpone the case to give staff the opportunity to do further research on the property and determine if it qualifies for designation as a landmark.

Commissioner Koch noted that although the district is changing, compromise is still possible. He said there have been multiple instances where developers have worked within the confines of the Standards for Rehabilitation to create structures that responded to the history of the district while still allowing for modern construction. Still, he said this occurs on a case-by-case basis. “This is a little bit of upside-down land,” he said.

Commissioners Alex Papavasiliou and Mathew Jacob were absent.

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