Austin’s oldest gay bar set to be demolished

Despite developer’s plan to rebuild some LGBTQ spaces, the surrounding community is skeptical

Hanover Group’s David Ott and Oilcan Harry’s in Austin (LinkedIn, Visit Austin)
Hanover Group’s David Ott and Oilcan Harry’s in Austin (LinkedIn, Visit Austin)

It’s pride month and the fate of Austin’s oldest LGBT spaces rests in the hands of a developer.

Houston-based Hanover Group’s redevelopment of West Fourth Street in Austin will be moving forward, according to the Austin Monitor. The project was postponed on May 3, then on Wednesday, Austin’s Historic Landmark Commission elected not to recommend historic zoning for the block, including its tenant Oilcan Harry’s—the city’s oldest gay bar with 32 years at the site.

It may have been a unanimous vote by the commission, but board members are mournful over their decision, as they said it was the only option to preserve some aspect of this fixture of Austin’s LGBTQ cultural scene. Had the proposal been approved, it would have kicked the final judgment to the City Council.

“I could say, ‘Let’s recommend,’ send it up, it’ll get voted down, and then these properties are at risk of complete demolition and complete replacement with who knows what, versus the offer on the table now,” said Commissioner Kevin Koch, who expressed uneasiness over his decision.

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Preservation Austin executive director Lindsey Derrington (Preservation Austin, iStock)
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In April, when Hanover’s redevelopment plans for the 200 block West Fourth Street showed up on the Austin Historic Landmark Commission’s agenda, it sparked an immediate backlash. The developer’s plan for a 40-story residential high-rise with ground-floor retail would bring much needed housing to the supply-constrained city, while the project would see several long-standing LGBT spaces demolished.

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Since then Hanover partner David Ott has held discussions with members of the community. The latest plans include bringing back Oilcan Harry’s in a 4,200-square-foot space after the redevelopment. Though Neon Grotto and The Coconut Club will be permanently removed, Hanover said it will split up its ground-floor commercial space to include both a 4,500-square-foot, gay-owned eatery and a 1,500-square-foot gay bar—a new addition since last month.

With the final decision handed down, city officials and representatives of Austin’s LGBT community are divided.

“Will this divide our community? I would say, yeah. The smaller the places are that we have to go to, or the less places we have to be safe, it’s disproportionately unfair,” said Board of Adjustment Chair Jessica Cohen, who identified herself as the only openly transgender woman serving on a Texas land-use commission.

“The building would remain, but we will have been forced out and what fills the space would not be LGBTQ owned. The block’s character would completely change. We are not ok with that,” Scott Neal, Oilcan Harry’s manager said in a statement.

Some say the situation is more nuanced.

“Those of us who serve on land use boards know that developers will often tell you anything to get what they want while doing nothing, but I’ve been seriously impressed by the level of outreach by this developer and the builders to the LGBTQ community,” said Jessica Cohen.