A deal between Houston-based multifamily developer Hanover Company and downtown property owners alongside the management of Austin’s oldest gay bar and dance club Oilcan Harry’s would raise an approximately 40-story, 400-unit apartment tower at the corner of West Fourth and Colorado Street — a proposal that’s already drawn significant attention from the city’s LGBT community after appearing on the agenda of the Historic Landmark Commission’s April 11 meeting, due to the tower’s footprint requiring the demolition of several buildings inside the Warehouse District.
The agreement in question between Hanover, owner Michael Girard of the properties between 201 and 213 West Fourth Street, and the operators of Oilcan Harry’s would allow the demolition of the buildings atop the quarter-block — containing spots like Oilcan Harry’s, Neon Grotto, and Coconut Club along with the now-shuttered bar Sellers Underground — with the masonry facades of several warehouse-style structures rebuilt as part of the new tower’s street-level design.
But unlike other projects integrating structural elements of an old business in a new building, the Hanover design from Chicago-based architects Solomon Cordwell Buenz also preserves the operations of Oilcan Harry’s, providing part of the tower’s 10,000 square feet of ground-level retail space for a new club that’s approximately the same size as the existing business. The tower will also include a new restaurant and bar concept located at the corner, with the building’s street-level footprint pulled back from the sidewalk creating a covered outdoor space.
Hanover development partner David Ott says the aim of the plan is to add density and housing without disturbing the future of Oilcan Harry’s, which opened here in 1990 — in fact, Hanover aims to offer the business a longer-term lease agreement than its current deal, reportedly at a rent below market-rate — with the expectation that the club can continue to operate in this location for decades, even as single-story food and beverage operations are increasingly priced out of downtown by rising land values and property taxes. Ott and Girard believe the tower plan could provide other developers with a model for how to work with existing businesses and maximize valuable land’s highest and best use without erasing existing cultural landmarks.
Girard said the other businesses on the block, including Neon Grotto and Coconut Club, were aware of the project when they moved in before the pandemic.
“Those businesses went in right before the pandemic, with the understanding that this was being worked on. So they’re currently month-to-month leases and have been for have been for a period of time. If we move this forward, we’re gonna go to work on trying to find a replacement site also,” Girard explained.
While the tower is expected to be approximately 450 feet tall, the current focus from the developers is on the ground-level design of the project, with its first appearance at the Historic Landmark Commission starting the discussion of demolition of the existing buildings at the site — which likely do not qualify for historic status despite their age, due to extensive modification by countless tenants over the years. Though Hanover’s plan would demolish the buildings and only reconstruct the facades, the many layers of paint on the original brickwork would be removed, providing an appearance more accurate to the original warehouse structures.
With recent debate at the commission over the possible demolition of nearby gay bar the Iron Bear, there is significant concern from both the city’s LGBT community and preservation-minded Austinites that new development could potentially diminish cultural institutions housed downtown in buildings that might not qualify for traditional historic landmark status, which is the case for most of the structures in the Warehouse District — but since Hanover’s plan also aims to preserve the most iconic business operating at this corner, it’s unclear how the tower project and its demolition proposal will be received. After the April 11 briefing to the commission’s architectural review committee, the demolition proposal is expected to appear for consideration at the commission’s regular meeting on May 4.