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Landmark commission hopes developer can give LGBTQ businesses on Fourth Street a fighting chance

Friday, June 3, 2022 by Kali Bramble

As people across the world geared up to celebrate Pride Month, Austin’s LGBTQ community mourned the loss of its last cultural stronghold to redevelopmentOn Wednesday, the city’s Historic Landmark Commission elected not to recommend historic zoning for the block of warehouses on Fourth Street.

After another lively public hearing, commissioners unanimously voted to “indefinitely postpone” the partial demolition case, clearing it for approval by Planning Commission and City Council so long as plans for the site do not change. While sympathetic to appeals for preservation, commissioners argued that a recommendation for historic zoning could do more harm than good considering the developer’s concessions and outreach to existing LGBTQ businesses.

“I have asked myself if there’s any chance that a supermajority of City Council would agree to preserve these buildings in their totality, and have convinced myself there is not,” Commissioner Kevin Koch said. “And if they don’t, these projects are forever stamped non-historic for any future developer … we have seen a number of projects lose funding and go to other builders.”

Plans to redevelop the block of Fourth Street adjacent to its intersection at Colorado first appeared before the landmark commission last month, when a round of testimony led to a unanimous vote to delay approval through an initiation of historic zoning. Since then, Hanover Company says it has conducted significant outreach to the site’s current tenants and local LGBTQ organizations.

“I was in conversation as recently as today with the owners of Neon Grotto and Coconut Club to see how we could bring them into this new space,” said David Ott of Hanover Company, who recently reported plans to re-house Oilcan Harry’s.

“I think we’re the best bet to try to preserve the community … by being part of a larger development above we’re able to transfer that down to the ground floor, using some of those profits to make a subsidized rent structure for these businesses.”

Still, the camp opposing development, including the LGBTQ community and Preservation Austin, pointed out that preservation policy such as the 2011 Downtown Plan had recommended the establishment of a protected warehouse district along the block.

“The city has been intending to do this for years,” Titus Parks said. “Between that and our online petition, that’s nearly thousands of Austinites saying this is worth preserving.”

“We understand the legal constraints that resulted in staff’s recommendation against landmarking these buildings individually, but the fact that the community value of these LGBTQ spaces has not reached the age threshold for designation is a failure of policy,” said Meghan King of Preservation Austin.

Support for preservation was not uniform among the gay community, however, with some arguing the situation is more nuanced.

“Those of us who serve on land use boards know that developers will often tell you anything to get what they want while doing nothing, but I’ve been seriously impressed by the level of outreach by this developer and the builders to the LGBTQ community,” said Jessica Cohen, who also serves as chair of Austin’s Board of Adjustment. “Don’t take the risk of having this overturned by Council and ending up with a developer who couldn’t care less who leases from them.”

Commissioners ultimately agreed, on the conditions that Hanover Company commit to preserving building facades and continue talks with all three LGBTQ businesses currently operating on Fourth Street. The developer will also return before the commission’s Architectural Review Committee upon release of more detailed schematics.

“It’s damage control,” Koch said. “It seems to me the indefinite postponement, tying it to this proposal, is the only way to protect these properties from complete demolition.”

Proposed project rendering by Solomon Cordwell Buenz obtained via the city of Austin.

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