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Controversial Fourth Street high-rise gears up for first public hearing with landmark commission

Wednesday, April 13, 2022 by Kali Bramble

The Historic Landmark Commission’s architectural review committee hosted an unusually full conference room on Monday, as developers revealed their initial rendering of a 40-floor high-rise that would occupy the majority of a block in the center of Austin’s warehouse district.

Houston-based Hanover Company intends to partially demolish structures at 201-213 W. Fourth St. to make room for the multi-use complex, which would consist of bottom-floor retail space supporting 400 residential units overhead. Plans include the reconstruction of buildings that are currently home to LGBTQ bars Coconut Club and Oilcan Harry’s, as well as the complete demolition of Neon Grotto (previously Hangar Lounge) to make way for an open-air plaza on the corner of Fourth and Colorado. While the existing structures are not zoned historic, city staffers have flagged them as potentially significant.

“My history will show that I’m not against building towers on top of historical buildings if that’s what it takes to meet old and new Austin,” Commissioner Kevin Koch said. “Still, I am inclined to save as much as possible.”

This is not the first time Hanover Company has appeared before the commission. Last year, the developer cleared two high-rises of similar magnitude, including the recently finished Hanover Republic Square building at Fifth and Lavaca and a project at Third and Brazos that began construction earlier this month.

Chicago-based architecture firm Solomon Cordwell Buenz aims to maintain the character of the warehouse district at the ground level through reconstructing existing masonry using original materials and preserving historically accurate facades. At the same time, its design intends to open up space at the street level via transparency and open-air pavilions.

“We would like to create a corner (at Fourth and Colorado) that is open and dynamic, very much like the open-air patios that exist all over Austin,” said Clara Wineberg of Solomon Cordwell Buenz. “But really, we hope to focus on the retail masonry and let the rest of the building be the background.”

The project has already garnered significant concern following the agenda’s circulation on Reddit, Twitter and Instagram, particularly in the LGBTQ community, which fears it could obliterate Austin’s last remaining queer stronghold.

In an effort to ease the concerns, Hanover Company reported it is discussing long-term plans to reincorporate Oilcan Harry’s, Austin’s oldest remaining gay bar, into its final design. Developer David Ott says assisting with temporary relocation and providing reduced rent in a redesigned space of comparable size are both on the table. 

“Our intent is to set an example of responsible development,” Ott said. “We want to show how developers can work with existing businesses and design a space that works for their needs.”

While plans to address the Coconut Club and Neon Grotto have not been addressed, Hanover Company claimed that the tenants were aware of the project upon signing their lease agreement.

Landmark commissioners Terri Myers and Koch appeared receptive to the developer’s approach and design. “Although we’re losing a historic building on this site, it’s refreshing to see so much open commercial space in a place that is becoming more and more like a canyon,” Myers said. “It’s nice to see open spaces where people are encouraged to see each other, versus walls going straight up into the air.”

Still, they acknowledged the concerns brewing in the surrounding community. “This may be beyond our purview, but I know a lot of Austinites have had concerns about the loss of local businesses and venues,” Myers said. “We have seen so much given up to high-end real estate development.”

Following Monday’s discussion, Hanover Company plans to formally file an application for demolition and reconstruction to be considered at the Historic Landmark Commission’s next public hearing on May 4. From there, the commission will address the question of zoning the Fourth Street buildings historic, an approach likely favored by those who seek to protect the street’s LGBTQ bar scene. While such zoning is unlikely to prevent development, it could subject developers to additional design regulations.

Those interested in learning more or participating in the upcoming hearing can read up on the Historic Landmark Committee’s process here.

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