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Fate of East Austin grocery still uncertain

Comal Food Store not recommended for preservation by planning commission

Old one-story wooden building painted white with red skirting and trim.
Old Comal Food Store building
Andrea Calo

The fate of the Comal Food Store—a shuttered establishment and longtime fixture in East Austin—is still uncertain after the city Planning Commission failed to recommend historic zoning for the building at its August 13 meeting.

While the city Historic Landmark Commission voted unanimously in July to recommend preservation of the 92-year-old structure, the Planning Commission’s 6-3 vote Tuesday means the issue moves forward to the City Council without its recommendation.

Historic commission unanimously recommends landmarking

Located at 220 Comal Street and built in 1922, the one-story, wooden building was until a few years ago home to a corner store (as it had been more or less since it was built)—a neighborhood mainstay and at times an essential resource for people who lived and worked in the area, now called East Cesar Chavez.

The shuttered store is two blocks from the Plaza Saltillo rail station and the new, mixed-use Saltillo development that starts just west of the station. The Travis County Appraisal District put the property’s current value at $1.39 million.

The Austin Landmark Commission voted in July to recommend landmark designation for the building—now named the Tuke-Lyon Grocery Store after two families that owned and operated the store. Preserving a 25-foot buffer around the building, called for by city preservation staff, was also recommended.

Speaking on behalf Comal Koalas Properties at the Landmark Commission meeting, project architect Ponciano Morales said that the permit “was misrepresented on the initial meeting” and the project was never meant to be a complete demolition. He said owners wanted to restore and update the building.

Backup documents for that meeting, however, state that the “applicant has filed for a partial demolition permit, but the permit contemplates demolition of all four existing walls and the construction of a new building on the same footprint.”

Morales also said that the owner will now perform only the repairs and upgrades necessary to make the building code-compliant.

Planning commission cites repair cost and land value, fails to make recommendation

According to a recent Austin Monitor story, property owner Rosa Santis told the Planning Commission that she planned to restore the building it its original footprint—an outcome that would be hard to ensure without historic zoning, said Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky.

Attorney Micah King, representing the applicant for the demolition permit, said that such renovations would be cost-prohibitive. Commissioners spoke on both sides of the argument—stating that the building could be restored without historic designation and, conversely, the valuation of the property provides a large incentive to tear down the structure if it’s not protected.

Community members at the meeting spoke about the structure’s importance in the neighborhood—as a link to and a reminder of its past, the physical presence of which has diminished significantly over the past few decades.

Next step

The decision on landmarking the former store will now go to the full City Council on September 19, with no recommendation from the Planning Commission.