Controversial Fourth Street skyscraper could tear down historic gay bars

By Kali Bramble

The Historic Landmarks Commission’s architectural review panel hosted an unusually full conference room on Monday, as developers revealed their initial rendering of a 40-story skyscraper that would take up the majority of a block in the center of Austin’s warehouse district.

Houston-based Hanover Company intends to partially demolish the structures at 201-213 W. Fourth St. to make way for the mixed-use complex, which would consist of ground-floor retail space supporting 400 residential units above. Plans include rebuilding buildings that currently house LGBTQ bars Coconut Club and Oilcan Harry’s, as well as completely demolishing Neon Grotto (formerly Hangar Lounge) to make way for an outdoor plaza at the corner of Fourth and Colorado. Although the existing structures are not listed as historic, city employees have flagged them as potentially significant.

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

This is not the first time that Hanover Company has appeared before the commission. Last year, the developer cleared two skyscrapers of similar scale, including the recently completed building at Hannover’s Republic Square in Fifth and Lavaca and a project in Third and Brazos whose construction began at the beginning of the month.

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

“We would like to create a corner (in Fourth and Colorado) that is open and vibrant, much like the outdoor patios that exist all over Austin,” said Clara Wineberg of Solomon Cordwell Buenz. “But really, we’re hoping to focus on the retail masonry and let the rest of the building be the background.”

The project has already sparked serious concern following the diary’s spread on Reddit, Twitter and Instagram, particularly in the LGBTQ community, which fears it could obliterate Austin’s last queer stronghold.

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

“Our intention 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 meets their needs.”

While plans to tackle the Coconut Club and Neon Grotto were not discussed, Hanover Company claimed the tenants were aware of the project when they signed their lease agreement.

Landmark curators Terri Myers and Koch seemed receptive to the developer’s approach and design. “Although we are losing a historic building at this site, it is refreshing to see so many open commercial spaces in a place that is increasingly looking like a canyon,” Myers said. “It’s nice to see open spaces where people are encouraged to see each other, as opposed to walls rising straight up into the air.”

Still, they acknowledged the simmering concerns in the surrounding community. “It may be beyond our scope, but I know a lot of Austinians are worried about the loss of local businesses and places,” Myers said. “We’ve seen so much abandoned at high-end real estate development.”

Following Monday’s discussion, Hanover Company plans to formally file a demolition and reconstruction application that will be considered at the Historic Landmarks Board’s next public hearing on May 4. From there, the commission will address the issue of zoning buildings on historic Fourth Street, an approach likely favored by those seeking 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 learn more about the Historic Landmarks Committee process here.

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