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Photo by city of Austin

A win for preservationists at historic San Jacinto warehouse

Thursday, November 18, 2021 by Kali Bramble

Austin’s warehouse district is on the way to gaining one more protected landmark as of this past Monday, after the Historic Landmark Commission rejected an application to demolish a historic grocery warehouse at 301 San Jacinto Blvd.

Despite the property owner’s wishes to embark on a new development, commissioners presented overwhelming evidence that the property met the criteria for preservation. The commission unanimously voted to initiate historic zoning, securing the nine votes necessary for a supermajority.

“I don’t ever take lightly recommending historic zoning against an owner’s wishes,” Commissioner Kevin Koch said. “But I think this solidly meets three criteria – architectural significance, historic association and community value – which is quite unusual.”

Constructed in 1912, the building operated as a major grocery warehouse for the majority of the 20th century. It played a central role in the period of industrialization ushered in by Austin’s railroads, which imported goods to be stored and redistributed throughout the city.

“Austin was transformed by the railroad – it didn’t become a city until the railroad came to town,” Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky explained. “This building tells a chapter of Austin’s history like no other building really can … it’s integral to understanding how Austin grew as a city.”

The warehouse operated for decades under the Bremond family, which was influential in the world of commerce, banking and civic life throughout Texas. In addition to founding the Houston & Texas Central Railway in 1848, the Bremonds are responsible for organizing Austin’s first volunteer fire department, its oldest grocery store, and a local bank involved in the city’s early stages of commercial development.

Currently, the warehouse belongs to the Houston family, relatives of the Bremonds, who submitted an application to demolish the structure that was postponed in October. Real estate attorney Richard Suttle, who appeared before the landmark commission on the family’s behalf, argued that the historic designation would be an excessive measure and a hardship to the Bremonds’ descendants.

“If this were to move forward, it would be penalizing the family that’s owned it since the mid-1920s for keeping it up,” Suttle said. “It’s a nondescript warehouse used as a symbol to tell a story that could be easily done with documentation or a plaque. Downtown is changing and this family just wants to move forward to the next chapter in their lives.”

Suttle noted the absence of community opposition at either meeting, as well as the fact that the building’s history was already recognized through the Fourth Street warehouse district and Bremond block.

However, the landmark commission felt strongly about the building’s importance to the fabric of the city. Koch commented on the building’s architectural merits, noting its impressive preservation and exemplification of the warehouse style. “Once you understand its Old World construction, from bricks made from Colorado River clay and sand, it’s truly built from the land around Austin and tells a story of the historic use of this area.”

The commission also noted the warehouse’s historic contextualization of the cityscape. “With the Nelson Davis Warehouse, the old Spaghetti Warehouse, at the opposite end of the rail line … (301 San Jacinto) marks the path of the historic railway downtown,” Koch said. “Being near the modern rail terminus to downtown … it ties the past to the present and provides some context there.”

“It’s also located near the convention center, right on the doorstep for so many visitors to our city,” he continued. “This would really add to the array of landmarks we have around this area.”

While he supported the move for preservation, Commissioner Ben Heimsath acknowledged the difficulty of the Houston family’s position. “This is a great opportunity, but it’s in the face of a huge imbalance economically. This family is going to face great economic pressure to develop this site,” he said, alluding to Austin’s skyrocketing land value.

“I think we need more tools to give owners relief and incentive,” Heimsath said. “I really want to do what we can with the economic development corporation, and I’ve passed that on to them. If we don’t innovate, we will be here time and time again with every property owner downtown.”

Commissioners voted unanimously to initiate the property’s historic zoning designation. In order for the historic zoning to be approved, a supermajority of City Council will need to vote in its favor. The property owners still retain limited options to redevelop the site, but for now, 301 San Jacinto Blvd. stands tall.

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