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Photo by Historic Preservation Office

Future of El Mercado Uptown uncertain following approval of demolition permit

Thursday, February 3, 2022 by Kali Bramble

Nearly five decades of serving frozen margaritas and enchilada plates at 1700 Lavaca Street may be coming to an end in the near future. Finding insufficient support for historic zoning, the Historic Landmark Commission approved an application for 1700 Lavaca Street’s demolition in a 7-2 vote, with commissioners Terri Myers and Ben Heimsath in opposition.

“And another one bites the dust,” remarked a defeated Myers as she tallied up the votes.

Readers may recognize 1700 Lavaca as the home of local restaurant chain and bona fide Austin institution El Mercado, which opened in 1996 following the success of its South First Street location in the 1980s. Longtime Austinites may also recall the building’s stint as Jorge’s Uptown Enchilada Bar, which opened in 1978 and advanced the tradition of Austin Tex-Mex for almost 20 years.

Beyond the general anticipation of more high-rises, it remains unclear what is in store for the new development. As of JanuaryEl Mercado owners Gerald Stone and Tony and Denise Villegas were still the site’s officially listed owners, but with a demolition and opportunity for development in the pipeline, the signs point to change.

The property stood a slim chance for consideration as a historic locale, having been constructed as a commercial building during Austin’s first industrial boom in the late 19th century. Staffers dutifully shared their research, noting that family grocery Haenel’s Cash Store had operated there for nearly 70 years until the early 1950s.

Unfortunately for preservationists, applicant Drenner Group is well aware of the criteria necessary to initiate historic zoning. On behalf of the real estate law firm, project manager Drew Raffaele made the case that the site scored questionable marks on both its historical and architectural merits. Evidence included findings that original porch structures and metal awnings had been removed long ago, and that Haenel’s Cash founder Emil Haenel Sr. was no more to history than a business owner and bowling enthusiast. In a room full of resignation, such items stirred little debate.

“I’ll be as sad to see El Mercado go as much as anyone,” Commissioner Kevin Koch said, as he made the motion to approve the demolition permit. “It’s yet another hit in this part of town, but I just don’t think it rises to the level of landmark designation.”

The city’s Economic Development Corporation, which was created to address mounting affordability issues and unbridled development, has expressed its intentions to relieve downtown business owners dealing with the fallout of Austin’s real estate boom. In perhaps some relief to the Historic Landmark Commission, longtime preservationist Bradford Patterson will serve as the commission’s representative nominee on the 21-member board, as of his unanimous approval last Monday. Still, only time will tell if the new EDC has the ability to stand up to the merciless hand of the real estate market.

“This is yet another domino falling in our central business district, and I can’t stress enough how badly we need more tools as a commission,” Commissioner Heimsath remarked. “The economics are such that if we don’t do something we are going to have very little left, even with buildings of a much higher integrity and with much stronger cases to be made.”

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