About half of Austin’s LGBTQ-centric nightlife spaces could soon be displaced, as redevelopment comes to the historic buildings they call home.
In the city’s Warehouse District, developers seek to demolish the buildings home to Oilcan Harry’s, Coconut Club and Neon Grotto near Fourth and Colorado streets and the Iron Bear on West Sixth Street. All four Austin nightclubs either cater primarily to LGBTQ patrons, like Oilcan Harry’s and the Iron Bear, or program entertainment explicitly for that community, as in the case of Coconut Club and Neon Grotto.
The prospect has caused a groundswell of public opposition to the demolition, but not all the bar owners feel the same way.
Historically, bars like these have been crucial community centers for the city’s queer population. When the Supreme Court opened the door for marriage equality in 2015, celebrations centered on Fourth Street, for example, and the annual Austin Pride Parade route marches past Oilcan Harry’s.
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Both development projects involve decades-old structures. None of the businesses own the buildings they occupy, and a halt to demolition would not necessarily mean the bars stay put. How the demolition permit applications proceed currently depends on the city’s Historic Landmark Commission, which can determine whether the structures themselves, not the tenants, are historically significant.
That means the current debate hinges less on preserving individual bars that attract and support marginalized communities, and more on windows, doors and parapets. Both proposals will be discussed at a May 4 meeting of the commission.
“We can’t save a business, but we can save a place where businesses like it can survive and thrive,” Historic Landmark Commission member Kevin Koch said at a recent meeting.
What’s happening on Fourth Street?
The Fourth Street neighborhood has been home to the greatest concentration of Austin’s LGBTQ bars for decades. While the lineup has changed, consistent residents calling it home include Rain, Highland Lounge and Oilcan Harry’s. The latter touts itself as the oldest LGBTQ bar in the city, opening in 1990.
Coconut Club and Neon Grotto, newcomers to the block, set up shop more recently — in 2019 for the former and 2021 for the latter. While they do not bill themselves as LGBTQ bars as explicitly as their neighbors, the adjoining dance clubs regularly host drag shows and queer DJs.
The Historic Landmark Commission is considering a demolition proposal for 201-213 W. Fourth St. filed by applicant Metcafe Wolff Stuart and Williams, LLP, an Austin-based real estate law firm. David Ott of Houston-based developer Hanover Company and Clara Wineberg of Chicago-based architecture firm Solomon Cordwell Buenz on April 11 appeared before the commission’s architectural review committee for feedback on plans for the site.
The developers said that their plan to build a mixed-use development on the spot would maintain the “beloved character” of the district, with open areas and a corner that invites street activity.
The approximately 40-story tower, with about 400 residential units, would also preserve the existing ground-floor architecture and brick façades.
Ott told the Statesman on Wednesday that Hanover Company and Oilcan Harry’s have an agreement in principle for the bar to vacate when construction starts and return as a ground-floor tenant “as soon as possible.” The two parties have worked on plans for the new space so that they meet the bar’s needs, Ott said. The bar would receive a “subsidized rent structure,” he added, and the lease terms would let it stay on the block for years to come.
There are not plans for Coconut Club and Neon Grotto to return as tenants. Ott said at the committee meeting that the reimagined project could house a chef-driven restaurant concept in that space; he told the Statesman that he hopes it would be “locally driven.”
Ott said that the developers plan to start construction in May of next year, with a target opening date of late 2025. Existing tenants would stay put through South by Southwest next spring, he said. Nearby Rain, which is not part of the project, would stay open during construction, Ott said.
Chair Terri Myers said the commissioners were concerned about the city’s continuing loss of historic businesses amid high-end development. She called the displacement of the city’s creative class an “exodus” that threatens “that type of local vibe that we tend to celebrate but maybe not support as much as we should.”
“I understand and can sympathize that people are concerned and have fear about the unknown,” Ott said of the public outcry over the demolition plans. He acknowledged the disruption that the project would cause, but he said that developers are not trying to eliminate the LGBTQ community’s “safe zone” on West Fourth Street.
“Density and development is happening in downtown Austin whether people like it or not,” he said, adding, “The question for me as a developer is, how do we do that responsibly?”
What does Oilcan Harry’s say?
Scott Neal, managing member at Oilcan Harry’s, on Thursday provided a statement to the Statesman saying that while the bar appreciates the “overwhelming outreach of concern and support from our community,” they do not wish to see a historic landmark declaration for their West Fourth Street building. The bar also discouraged members of the public from opposing the demolition application before the Historic Landmark Commission.
Neal said that “we want everyone to understand that the designation of our building as historic will actually result in Oilcan Harry’s being forced out of the block in less than 10 years by individuals and factors outside of our control,” Neal said. “The building would remain, but we will have been forced out and what fills the space would not be LGBTQ owned.”
Neal said that keeping the West Fourth neighborhood as a safe space for LGBTQ people was Oilcan Harry’s main priority, and they believe Hanover Company will do that. The bar must work with “changing forces,” he said, for the community’s home to survive.
“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,” he said, adding, “We ask that you trust in us to get this right on our own and stand down on the historic designation.”
What do Coconut Club and Neon Grotto say?
Cole Evans, co-owner with Brian Almaraz of Coconut Club and Neon Grotto (along with cantina Cuatro Gato), told the Statesman that their landlord has been transparent about this possibility since the beginning. Their lease includes an option for 24 months notice to leave. They aren’t focused on staying where they are now, despite a groundswell of community support for stopping the demolition.
“I think fighting it is futile,” Evans said. “For us, we’re excited for the chance to try new things.”
The club owners had limited money and no track record starting out, he said, so they were grateful for the opportunity to get their vision going rather than wait for a perfect spot. “When we went in, we anticipated that there might be a time when things got knocked down,” he said.
Two months after opening Coconut Club, they got the notice that the spot would be “going vertical,” Evans said. The pandemic then put things on hold until recently. Evans said that he and Almaraz are looking at this displacement as an opportunity to build on what they started in the Warehouse District.
Rising rents and city zoning make finding a sustainable home daunting, Evans said. But he thinks that they have sufficient time to prepare for their next step. They don’t know where their next concept will land, but “the hunt is on,” he said.
“I hope that the city can find a way to adapt to the way that Austin is growing,” he said. “If it become a city where only developers are making decisions, that’s a problem.”
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What’s happening on West Sixth Street?
The situation for the Iron Bear is similar. In the spring of 2020, the bar had just moved to 301 W. Sixth St. from its longtime home on Eighth Street. Then, the pandemic temporarily shut its doors after being open for just two weeks.
The Historic Landmark Commission on March 28 heard public comments about a proposal to demolish the building from applicant the Drenner Group, on behalf of Intracorp Homes. According to city staff, the Iron Bear’s current home was built around 1919 and previously served as an ice cream factory, among other uses.
Steve Drenner of the Drenner Group, an Austin-based real estate law firm, spoke on behalf of the permit applicants. The architectural case for designating the building as historic is tenuous, he said, citing alterations to things like windows and doorways over the years.
“We have a great tenant,” he said, adding that “the lease that they signed had a maximum of seven years, but there was a buyout provision after a year, and that’s what’s being triggered now. This tenant never thought that this was a long-term home.”
“A beloved tenant does not make a historic structure,” he later added.
When the Statesman asked Drenner in email about post-demolition plans for the site, he said on Wednesday that he is no longer working on the project. Jeremy L. Smitheal of Sixth & Lavaca 2018, LP, owner of the building, submitted to the commission a letter opposing historic zoning of the property.
What does the Iron Bear say?
Messages from the Statesman to the Iron Bear were not immediately returned. But the bar’s Instagram account in recent weeks has posted several times thanking its patrons for speaking out and encouraging people to help “Save the Iron Bear.” On March 30, the bar posted the latest news from the Historic Landmark Commission with the caption, “The fight is not over!”
What is the Austin LGBTQ community saying?
Opponents of the Iron Bear’s demolition showed up strong to the March meeting. Myers, the commission chair, compared the support of the Iron Bear to the community outcry over the proposed demolition of No-Comply Skate Shop last year.
One patron of the Iron Bear, Dr. James Walker, said that the demolition would fundamentally displace “a community that is historically marginalized.”
“The Iron Bear is one of the first bars that I felt completely safe to be myself, to be out and open in my community,” he said.
Walker decried a trend of “corporate greed” and mentioned the possibility of redevelopment on Fourth Street: “If they can displace one queer bar, they’re going to displace another and another and another. We’re going to be pushed out like we have been for generations, for years. … Our community is being constantly pushed around.”
Aidan Barriga, who identified himself as an employee of Iron Bear, said during the meeting, “We provide an invaluable service … as a congregation place for all members of our community.”
Citing the much higher rates of suicide among LGBTQ people, Barriga said that “radically accepting” places like the Iron Bear save lives and compared the destruction of the space to a “hate crime against our community.”
“Where does the disruption of Austin’s heart stop?” he said.
An Instagram account called Save 4th St. ATX, run by Armando Sanchez, has been organizing the community in recent weeks, posting information about the possible displacement of Austin’s LGBTQ bars and urging people to tell the commission that they are opposed to the demolition proposals.
“Standing up against attacks on our community is part of our history and is in our blood. We embody the spirit of Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Harvey Milk, and many more defenders of queer rights who fought for our liberty to exist as we are and where we stand,” Sanchez said in a statement provided to the Statesman.
Cheer Up Charlies, the queer-owned nightlife venue in the Red River Cultural District, posted a statement on social media about Austin’s LGBTQ scene and offered solidarity to their peers in the Warehouse District.
A Change.org petition titled “#BlockTheBuild and Preserve Austin’s Historic LGBTQ+ District” had almost 4,000 signatures as of Thursday.
What’s next for Austin’s LGBTQ clubs?
After public comments at the March 28 commission meeting, Koch recognized the “nearly 50 continuous years of LGBTQ presence in the Warehouse District.”
“We’ve struck a nerve. We’ve gotten too close,” the commissioner said of development encroaching on the district. “One of the reasons that it’s important is that it’s a historically safe space for LGBTQ people. If we erase that, then we’re losing part of our soul, and we’re selling that out for money.”
The Historic Landmark Commission judges historical significance based on the criteria of architecture, historical association, archaeology, community value and relationship to the landscape features.
Both cases will come up in the May 4 meeting of the commission. This will be the first time the West Fourth Street project has come up at the commission’s regular meeting, and commissioners will hear from both applicants for demolition and from the community.
Commissioners on March 28 voted to initiate historic zoning for the West Sixth Street site and left the case open for public hearing. They were quick to caution the opponents of the demolition that they face an uphill battle. A supermajority of commissioners would need to vote to advance the matter as a zoning case that then goes to city’s planning commission.
Myers in March said of the issue, “It comes to the core of what Austin is, what Austin has been and what’s going to happen to Austin.”
She continued, “Austin became a popular place, and as more people came here, there was more incentive to tear down the things that people came here in the first place to experience and to enjoy.
“It’s kind of like killing the goose that laid the golden egg. We’re losing the things that made Austin, or maybe still make Austin, the place that we want to live in.”