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Austin Historic Landmark Commission initiates motion for historic zoning of Fourth Street LGBTQ bars

The commission met Wednesday night to discuss a demolition permit that has sparked pushback from some in the community.

AUSTIN, Texas — At a meeting on Wednesday night, the Austin Historic Landmark Commission unanimously approved a motion to initiate historic zoning for a stretch of West Fourth Street in Downtown Austin that developers want to turn into a high-rise.

The commission discussed a demolition permit for the buildings at 200-213 West Fourth St. The Hanover Company has proposed a 400-unit high rise that would feature ground-floor retail, restaurants and bars, according to a report from the Austin Business Journal.

Currently, the area is home to longtime LGBTQ bar Oil Can Harry’s and others, including Coconut Club and Neon Grotto. Some community members are trying to stop the development from happening, while Oil Can Harry’s is asking for the community’s support.

RELATED: Austin Historic Landmark committee discussing item on 'total demolition' of 4th Street building façades

"I'm trying to think of the big picture, at what precedent does this set for the City and for the Historic Landmark Commission to allow real estate developers to continue to do this at other bars, specifically the LGBTQ bars as well,” said Ben Hlousek, who organized a petition to “Block the Build” that has gained nearly 4,300 signatures. 

“Some people fundamentally disagree on the way in which preserving the culture of Austin is most important," Hlousek said. "So, regardless of the outcome of this, I want to be sure that the Historic Landmark Commission knows that our community won't stand down, we won't be silenced and [we] will continue to fight for, inevitably, the other bars that are going to be under contention as well in the future.”

Hlousek said a final decision on historic zoning for the Fourth Street warehouse district will be made by the Austin City Council, with guidance from the Historic Landmark Commission. A further session will be held to discuss and vote on a motion to approve the historic voting, which requires a supermajority vote, Hlousek said.

In a statement, Oil Can Harry’s asked for the community’s support of the demolition permit, explaining it’s the best option to keep the bar alive for years to come. Read the full statement:

“We truly appreciate the overwhelming outreach of concern and support from our community. Ensuring our 4th street family has a safe space has always been our number one goal and it’s amazing to see it paid back, especially when our community feels threatened. Rest assured, our mission is to keep 4th street alive for a long time, and if we navigate these waters correctly, we will succeed. However, in our unique case, we need you to know a historical declaration is NOT the way to do it.

The full details of our 4th street block situation are complicated and not publicly well known, but we want everyone to understand that the designation of our building as historic will result in Oilcan Harry’s being forced out of the block in less than 10 years by individuals and factors outside of our control. The building would remain, but we will have been forced out and what fills the space would not be LGBTQ owned. The blocks character would completely change. We are not OK with that. 

While it can be jolting to see Austin changing, especially when it hits so close to home, the reality is in our downtown location we must work with these changing forces if our community wants to continue to have 4th street as place to call home. We have been using our biggest tool, the remaining term on our current lease, as leverage to negotiate a deal that will keep the LGBTQIA+ community on the block for more than 25 years to come. We believe our landlord has found a good development partner in Hanover, and their desire is to keep 4th street as a safe space for our community. With that essential requirement in mind and met, we have come to a basic agreement on terms which will allow for our legacy business to continue on in a blend of historic and new. The effort to declare our building as historic would take away the only leverage tool we have, and so we ask that our community NOT oppose the application at the Landmark Commission on May 4th. Oilcan Harry’s has had its doors open on 4th for over 32 years, and we believe we have a path forward with Hanover, which will keep us and our community on 4th for another 25+ years.

We thank all of you again for your outreach and support. It means to world to our entire Oilcan Harry’s family.”

Coconut Club also released a statement:

Once again, we would like to thank everyone for your support and outpouring these past few weeks following the announcement of our closing NEXT YEAR. Since there has been a lot of concerns, uncertainties and misinformation raised

over this situation, we feel we ought to address those issues and offer some clarity about our plans moving forward. In regards to our timeline in our current space, we will be allowed to remain in the space at least through SXSW2023 with the possibility of that deadline extending longer. There are still steps on the developers' side that need to be handled before the demolition can begin, and our landlord is working on our behalf to ensure that we can operate as long as is possible before closing our doors.

As far as our future goes, we assure you that we have every intention of sticking around once the doors of 310 Colorado close. We love our staff. We love our performers. We love our community. We want to remain here in Austin to provide a home for you all to do your thing. With at least 11 months advanced notice now, we feel confident that we will have sufficient time to plan for our next steps here. When the pandemic hit after only 3 months of operating, we were sure that was the end of us. But, with the help of the community, our staff, our friends, our family, and an understanding landlord who was an immeasurable help, we were able to not only survive, but also to expand. And while this change is equally as daunting, we know that we have the support to do it again.

With Oilcan Harry's being provided a home in the new building, we are happy to see that a vital institution in Austin will be allowed to remain in its historical location. On our end, we are seeing the change of space as an opportunity to do

something even better, taking what we've learned from this first manifestation and putting it to use in our next. Coconut Club has always been a passion project for us, and we assure you that passion will carry over.

Whatever our future holds, please remember that one thing will never change: Coco loves you.

Bryce Newberry on social media: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

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