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Iron Bear demolition paused as landmark commission considers historic designation

Thursday, April 21, 2022 by Elizabeth Pagano

With its fate far from certain, the proposed demolition of the warehouse that is home to Austin’s Iron Bear has been put on hold after the city’s Historic Landmark Commission initiated historic zoning on the structure.

An outpouring of support for the beloved LGBTQ bar moved commissioners to move forward with designating the building at 301 W. Sixth St. a historic landmark. Though that designation might save the building, it will ultimately have to be approved by a supermajority of City Council should the landmark commission vote to recommend historic zoning at its May 4 meeting. 

Aidan Barriga, who is an employee of the Iron Bear, spoke against the demolition on behalf of the bar’s staff. He told the commission that the bar was a safe space that accepts all with open arms. 

“As we lose these spaces, we’re seeing the coming death of Austin’s cultural heart. Places that make Austin unique are being destroyed by big business interests, with their endless dollars for lobbying and buying out small businesses to put up monolithic towers that are as culturally antithetical to the spirit of Austin as they are tall,” he said. “Where does the destruction of Austin’s heart stop? I do not give myself to hyperbole or exaggeration when I say places such as these truly save lives.”

Dr. James Walker, a research therapist at Fort Hood, said he had been working with fellow Iron Bear patron Ace Villanueva to get the word out about the bar’s struggles. Over the past month he said they had encountered a dispiriting level of apathy from a community “used to being pushed around” and not heard by politicians. 

“If they can displace one queer bar, they’re going to displace another and another and another and another and we’re going to be pushed out like we have been for generations, for years,” he said. 

Commissioners voted unanimously to initiate historic zoning based on the building’s historic associations, architectural significance and community value. Commissioner Kevin Koch, who made the motion, noted that the warehouse district has been home to LGBTQ bars for nearly 50 years.

In making his motion, Koch noted that warehouse buildings have been “dropping like flies” downtown, due to the fact that they often lacked historic significance that would justify preservation. He referenced a new proposal that is threatening the existence of the gay bars lining Fourth Street and pointed to the upcoming demolition of 301 San Jacinto, which he said is the downtown warehouse most deserving of landmarking on its own.

“We kind of have to take it to the next level,” Koch said. 

Koch said he was surprised recently to see historic preservation of the warehouse district featured in the city’s Downtown Plan, given the district’s rapid erosion. He noted that the only way that the warehouse district could be preserved as a historic district was if the landowners initiated the effort on their own and that Sixth Street and Congress Avenue could suffer similar fates, as they are not local historic districts either.

“To my knowledge, nothing has happened to preserve the Fourth Street warehouse district. We’ve basically been nipping away at the edges of identified historic resources … and we finally struck a nerve,” he said. “To eventually destroy all of (the warehouses) for giant high-rises, full of people living like the Borg, with no place to go that is human-scale and human-interest is not where we want to take downtown.”

Steve Drenner of the Drenner Group spoke on behalf of the building’s owner, who would like to demolish the building. He pointed out that it isn’t known what the original 1919 building looked like, but the doors and windows have been altered and the brick irreversibly painted. 

“Architecturally, it’s a very tenuous relationship to what was there in the past,” Drenner said. “However, what’s even more tenuous is to suggest that this history satisfies the historical association criteria.” 

“We have all seen iconic places that we love go away,” said Drenner, noting that the Iron Bear’s lease was signed in 2019. “A beloved tenant does not make a historic structure.”

Drenner asked commissioners to focus on the code, and what it mandated in regard to historic zoning, saying that the historic associations and architectural significance do not meet the standard for landmarking. Drenner also warned that historic zoning on this site would “set a dangerous precedent” and make landowners wary of popular tenants. 

“There may be a need to address the issues that were eloquently discussed tonight,” he said. “I would agree, but I don’t think this is the place.”

Also speaking in support of the demolition, downtown resident Marshall Geyer told the commission that the proposed project would bring 330 “sorely needed” residential units and retail to the neighborhood.

“I would argue that our city is in no position to turn down these offerings,” he said. “As a downtown resident, I think it would benefit our community most to demolish this building and welcome hundreds of new residents to the site, providing some relief during our housing crisis.”

Jessica Cohen, who is the chair of the Board of Adjustment but was not speaking in that capacity, agreed that the way historic landmarking was currently being applied was a “stretch” but promised the commission she could come up with a better tack if given another month to research the case. 

“This is an important venue, but it’s not just about the venue itself. It’s about what’s going to be left downtown. No, it’s not the warehouse district it once was, but little spaces like this that show us how our city used to look. If we knock them all down, all we’re going to have left is high-rises,” Cohen said, “and that’s not something that I want to see.” 

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