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Planning Commission rejects historic zoning for San Jacinto warehouse

Friday, January 14, 2022 by Jonathan Lee

The Planning Commission Tuesday voted against historic zoning for a former warehouse in downtown Austin, siding with the property owner who wants to demolish the building over preservationists seeking to save it.

The case began last year when the Historic Landmark Commission halted a demolition permit for the circa-1912 warehouse at 301 San Jacinto Blvd., currently home to Vince Young Steakhouse and Thomas Printworks. According to HLC commissioners and city staffers, the warehouse should be preserved because of its architectural merit, historic association and community value. In November, the HLC voted unanimously to initiate historic zoning. The property owner hopes to build a tower on the site, though no plans have been released. 

Though the single-story brick building may not look like much, it counts as architecturally significant because it’s “a good example of a utilitarian structure with few alterations,” said Elizabeth Brummett with the city’s Historic Preservation Office. “It’s not simply high-style buildings that can meet the criterion for architecture.”

The building has historical significance, according to Brummett, because of its former role as a warehouse for multiple wholesale grocers, including the John Bremond Company. Preservationists see community value in using the building to mark what’s left of a once-thriving warehouse district anchored by a railroad.

Not everyone agrees – least of all the current property owner, who is related to the Bremond family. “Landmarking ought to be a high bar,” said attorney Richard Suttle, representing the owner. “This warehouse – there’s nothing special about it.” No community members signed up to speak on the case, prompting Suttle to ask, “Where’s the community value tonight?”

Suttle also argued that preservation, by precluding anything but one-story buildings, hurts the city’s goal of fostering a dense, walkable downtown. “From a planning standpoint, it really doesn’t make a lot of sense,” he said. As a preservation compromise, Suttle said the tower could incorporate elements of the warehouse. 

The stakes for the owner are high; if the property is zoned historic, plans for the tower would fall through and the property’s $16 million value would plummet. What’s more, alterations to the building would need approval from either city staffers or the landmark commission, depending on how drastic they are. 

Brummett suggested that the tax break that comes with historic zoning, estimated at $67,340 annually, may be of some consolation to the owner. “This tax incentive is intended to offset the potentially higher costs of maintaining a historic property,” Brummett said. “It also offsets the development restrictions.” 

The commission ultimately sided with the owner, voting 7-3-1 to reject the historic zoning request. Commissioners Todd Shaw, Rob Schneider and Grayson Cox voted for historic zoning, while Commissioner Carmen Llanes Pulido abstained.

Commissioner Awais Azhar, who motioned to deny the request, saw little worth in preserving the warehouse because of the modern convention center and hotels in the vicinity. “Even though I might agree with some of the architectural features,” Azhar said, “there’s no cultural significance here.” He argued that the city would be better off preserving what’s left of the Warehouse District along West Fourth Street.

Schneider voted to preserve the building in part because of the rapid change in the city. “We’re at a frenetic, breathtaking pace of development, especially downtown,” he said. “If this does not get approved, it is gone forever.” 

The case goes to City Council for a final decision Feb. 3, where a supermajority vote is needed to zone the property historic.

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