Iron Bear demolition halted as historic commission considers historic designation

Thursday, April 21, 2022 by Elizabeth Pagano

With its fate far from certain, plans to demolish the warehouse that houses Austin’s Iron Bear were put on hold after the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission initiated historic zoning of the structure.

An outpouring of support for the beloved LGBTQ bar prompted commissioners to move forward with designating the building at 301 W. Sixth St. a historic landmark. While this designation may save the building, it will ultimately need to be approved by a super majority of city council if the historic commission votes to recommend historic zoning at its May 4 meeting.

Aidan Barriga, who is an employee of the Iron Bear, spoke out against the demolition on behalf of the bar staff. He told the commission that the bar was a safe space that welcomes everyone with open arms.

“As we lose these spaces, we are witnessing the near death of Austin’s cultural heart. The places that make Austin unique are being destroyed by big business interests, with their endless dollars to lobby and buy up small businesses to build monolithic towers that are as culturally antithetical to the spirit of Austin as they are tall,” he said. “Where does the destruction of Austin’s heart stop? hyperbole or exaggeration when I say that places like these really do save lives.

Dr. James Walker, a research therapist at Fort Hood, said he worked with fellow Iron Bear patron Ace Villanueva to raise awareness of the bar’s struggles. Over the past month, he said they had encountered a disheartening level of apathy from a community “used to being pushed around” and not heard by politicians.

“If they can move one queer bar, they’re going to move another and another and another and another and we’re going to be kicked out like we’ve been for generations, for years,” he said. declared.

Commissioners voted unanimously to initiate historic zoning based on the building’s historical associations, architectural significance, and community value. Commissioner Kevin Koch, who introduced the motion, noted that the Warehouse District has been home to LGBTQ bars for nearly 50 years.

In presenting his motion, Koch noted that warehouses were “dropping like flies” downtown, due to the fact that they often lacked historical significance that would justify their preservation. He referenced a new proposal that threatens the existence of gay bars lining Fourth Street and pointed to the upcoming demolition of 301 San Jacinto, which he says is the downtown warehouse most deserving. single-handedly recognized.

“We kind of have to take it to the next level,” Koch said.

Koch said he was surprised recently to see the historic preservation of the warehouse district featured in the City center package, given the rapid erosion of the neighborhood. He noted that the only way to preserve the Warehouse District as a historic district was for landowners to start the effort themselves, and that Sixth Street and Congress Avenue might suffer the same fate, because those aren’t either. local historic districts.

“To my knowledge, nothing has been done to preserve the Fourth Street Warehouse District. We basically nibbled at the boundaries of the identified historic resources…and we finally struck a chord,” he said. “To end up destroying all (the warehouses) for giant skyscrapers, full of people living like the Borgwith no place to go on a human scale and where human interest is not where we want to take downtown.

Steve Drenner of the Drenner Group spoke on behalf of the building owner, who would like to demolish the building. He pointed out that it is not known what the original 1919 building looked like, but the doors and windows have been modified and the brick painted irreversibly.

“Architecturally, it’s a very tenuous relationship to what existed in the past,” Drenner said. “However, what is even more tenuous is to suggest that this story satisfies the criteria for historical association.”

“We’ve all seen iconic places we love disappear,” Drenner said, noting that the Iron Bear’s lease was signed in 2019. “A beloved tenant doesn’t make a historic structure.”

Drenner asked the commissioners to focus on the code and what it prescribes with respect to historic zoning, saying historic associations and architectural significance do not meet the benchmark standard. Drenner also warned that historic zoning at this site would “set a dangerous precedent” and make landowners wary of popular tenants.

“It may be necessary to address the issues that have been eloquently discussed tonight,” he said. “I would agree, but I don’t think this is the place.”

Also speaking in favor of the demolition, downtown resident Marshall Geyer told the commission that the proposed project would bring 330 “extremely needed” residential units and retail businesses to the neighborhood.

“I would say our city is in no position to turn down these offers,” he said. “As a downtown resident, I believe it would be of greatest benefit to our community to demolish this building and welcome hundreds of new residents to the site, which would provide some relief during our housing crisis. .”

Jessica Cohen, who is the chair of the Board of Adjustment but was not speaking in that capacity, agreed that the way the historical benchmark was currently applied was a “stretch”, but promised the commission that she could find a better tactic if given another one. months to study the case.

“It’s an important place, but it’s not just about the place itself. This is what will remain downtown. No, it’s not the warehouse district it once was, but small spaces like this that show us what our city was like. If we knock them all down, we’ll just be left with skyscrapers,” Cohen said, “and that’s not something I want to see.

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