A list of demolition applications under review for consideration at the upcoming January 24 meeting of the city’s Historic Landmark Commission tells the story of two possible new tower developments headed for downtown Austin, if you look closely — actually, the clues are incredibly obvious. Let’s take a peek for ourselves:
307 – 311 East Fifth Street
The first application would demolish an approximately 0.41-acre assembly of adjacent properties at 307 and 311 East Fifth Street, which adds up to a full downtown quarter-block at the southeast corner of East Fifth and Trinity Streets — sharing an intersection with both Brush Square and the promising future tower site that recently changed hands at Avenue Lofts, not to mention everything else planned in this attractively transit and convention center-adjacent district of downtown.
The consecutive properties are both owned by large downtown investors the Finley Company, the 307 address currently occupied by quirky Slavic eatery Russian House and the 311 address at the corner most recently housing the now-closed Trinity Hall event venue. No details are available at the moment regarding what’s in store for this corner, but considering the location, size, value of the land, and lack of any Capitol View Corridor constraints over the site, it’s a prime location for tower development. We do hope Russian House finds a new home in town, however — that menu is crazy.
1700 – 1704 Lavaca Street
The second demolition permit would clear the northwest corner of West 17th and Lavaca Streets, an address currently occupied by the “Uptown” location of local Tex-Mex chain El Mercado, along with a small office space. This site — unconstrained by Capitol View Corridors or the Capitol Dominance Overlay that limits the scale of buildings just a few blocks closer to downtown’s favorite dome — is still owned by the partnership of Austin restauranteur Gerald Stone and El Mercado owners Tony and Denise Villegas, but it appears a redevelopment of the site is on deck, leaving the future of the restaurant uncertain.
It’s worth noting that the demolition doesn’t seem to include the former Women and Their Work gallery space next door directly to the north at 1710 Lavaca Street — combining this site with the El Mercado corner would give developers a full quarter-block to work with, but without it the tract proposed for demolition only adds up to 0.28 acres. That’s still enough for a tower, but we wouldn’t rule out more development further up the block.
Since the Lavaca and East Fifth Street sites are both more than 50 years old, the Historic Landmark Commission needs to review each of their demolition applications — but as far as we can tell, neither site contains historic merit and will likely not encounter much resistance, though you never know! By our basic research, the 307 and 311 East Fifth Street sites were home to various auto parts stores, garages, and car dealerships, with the 307 property eventually operating as a wholesale furniture warehouse in the 1970s and finally used as art gallery space from the 1980s to the 2000s, with the Russian House restaurant opening in 2012. The 311 address operated as nightclub Paradox from the mid-1990s to 2008, with the event venue opening around 2015 after a brief run as Rival’s Steakhouse.
The past of 1700 – 1704 Lavaca Street also doesn’t appear to qualify for historic status, though it still gives us the interesting photo seen below — in the early 1900s the corner was home to Haenel’s One Price Cash Store, run by German immigrants Emil and Mary Haenel and selling groceries, farming needs, and other homewares. Various other retail operations occupied the site, including another storied Tex-Mex eatery Jorge’s Uptown Enchilada Bar from 1978 until El Mercado took over in 1996.
Though this info is interesting enough on its own, we’ll have to wait until the HLC meeting later this month to find out more, as there’s no indication of which developers are involved or even what’s in store for either site. Still, it’s evidence that downtown Austin’s growth machine isn’t slowing down in 2022, not that anyone thought it would — there’s still a few spots around here that could get a lot taller.
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