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More dominoes fall in Austin’s disappearing warehouse district

Monday, May 16, 2022 by Kali Bramble

As tensions erupted over plans to redevelop Fourth Street at the last meeting of the Historic Landmark Commission, the case of a brick warehouse on the corner of Sixth and Lavaca was caught in a three-way crossfire that flew more under the radar.

After an initial postponement for further research, the commission voted to initiate historic zoning of 301 W. Sixth St. based on its architectural and historic significance. The building was an early site of industrial food production and a “vital resource” for victory garden outreach efforts during World War II. But out of time to delay the vote further and lacking in number to form the supermajority needed to move historic zoning forward, the commissioners resigned themselves to approving the application to demolish 301 W. Sixth.

The case first came to the commission in late February, when owners Sixth & Lavaca 2018 LP submitted the application to demolish the property that is currently home to the Iron Bear. Since then, concerns have mounted over the rapid redevelopment of areas that have housed Austin’s LGBTQ scene for decades.

“There are three properties on the agenda tonight alone that are gay bars or former gay bars,” said Jessica Cohen, chair of the city’s Board of Adjustment and the only openly trans woman serving on a land use board in Texas. “So asking if this will divide the (gay) community, the answer is yeah … it’s disproportionately unfair to a minority that already has such a hard time in Texas.”

The situation is more nuanced for the owners of the Iron Bear.

“This individual demolition permit has become caught up in a larger discussion of Austin and where and how the city can maintain its growth without destroying current gay safe spaces,” owner Benny Beshear said in a statement supporting the demolition. Beshear added that the owners were “critical partners during the depths of the pandemic” who deferred rent costs during lockdown and were transparent about their impending redevelopment plans.

Then there’s the Historic Landmark Commission, for which the case represents a different kind of existential threat. Counting demolition permits for 209 and 213 W. Fifth St. approved on the consent agenda, Commissioner Kevin Koch noted that nine out of 14 remaining warehouse buildings in the warehouse district were on the chopping block.

“We may want to get Google Maps to delete the warehouse district and have everyone that touts it in their marketing of Austin to be prepared to erase it if something isn’t done,” Koch said.

Since its inception, the Historic Landmark Commission has been caught in an uphill battle against accelerating development using severely underpowered weapons. To the commissioners, the disappearing warehouse district is a harbinger of the creeping erosion of Austin’s history.

“We on the commission are charged with making sure our heritage is passed on to future generations, and it’s frustrating how the few tools we do have are being overwhelmed,” Commissioner Ben Heimsath said. “This is going to be our future for the next several years, and it’s going to be pretty dismal.”

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