AUSTIN (KXAN) — The ever-changing landscape of West Campus could be getting another overhaul. This time it includes a complex that will be built around the Austin historic landmark building that currently houses Freedmen’s, a popular barbecue restaurant.
City permits show an application was filed in April for the three parcels at the northwest corner of West 24th Street and San Gabriel Street. The developers would build multi-family housing units where Tap 24, 7-Eleven, and a parking lot currently sit.
The project, which has been given the name Hilltop, would also have underground parking, according to the filings. The developers tell KXAN that the complex will be built in a U-shape around the building.
The development would have more than 500 bedrooms (134 units total). Per city rules for historic landmarks, the building will need to have a buffer of around 15 feet around it where the apartment complex cannot interfere. The companies behind the development are Johnson Trube & Associates as well as the Wuest Group.
“We absolutely love the historic structure, not just because we love all things that are historic and unique, the building has a great story,” said Edward Johnson, whose company is applying for the permit. “We also think that it gives our project great character, we plan on leaving [the historic landmark] entirely alone.”
Johnson clarified they do plan to help with some refurbishing of the landmark and to make sure that all the structures nearby don’t get in the way of appreciating it.
“We are also leaving a portion of the site untouched that serves as a courtyard right now to Freedmen’s and there is a historic wall that we’re leaving that make s a great component to this project,” he said.
Johnson added their aim is to preserve the history of the historic structure and to create pedestrian-friendly student housing.
He added that the developers have been working with Freedmen’s through this whole process.
Tap 24 closed its doors earlier this month. Freedmen’s staff told KXAN in a statement that “everything is business as usual here.” It is still unclear what exactly will happen during the apartment construction and afterward.
A spokesperson with the city of Austin’s Development Services tells KXAN its staff have reviewed the developer’s site plan and offered comments, now Development Services is waiting to receive a revised plan. Since the process is still in its beginning phases, the spokesperson says it could still change a lot.
Steve Sadowsky, a historic preservation officer with the city of Austin, is very familiar with this development proposal. He’s been talking to the developers for months. In fact, the city’s Historic Landmark Commission approved the developer’s proposal back in September of 2017.
Sadowsky explained that the building is commonly referred to as the Franzetti store, named for an Italian-American family who owned the store for many years in the 1900s.
He added that this project was a little trickier because the narrow historic zone the building sits on is surrounded by land that is open for development.
“It came to the commission because there’s a section of the new development behind the Franzetti store by the new development,” Sadowsky said.
He explained that this project got approval from the commission after a few changes because it was up to code and found a way, “that the historic building continues to stand out in its new location rather than being tucked into a new development. “
“My personal belief is that its one of the most import buildings in the city because not only is it a 19th century building that displays 19th century architecture and construction techniques, but the history of it is really so significant to the history and the development — not just the African-American community but the entire city,” Sadowsky said.
Puala Adboga, the museum site coordinator for the George Washington Carer Museum, explained that George Franklin, a former slave, purchased the land and built the Franzetti building in 1869.
“Later it was occupied by Jacob Fontaine, and Jacob Fontaine is one of Austin’s heroes,” Adboga said. “He founded several African-American Baptist churches, he also lived in the Franzetti house, and he ran the Gold Dollar newspaper from there.”
The Gold Dollar was one of the first African-American newspapers west of the Mississippi, she explained.
“African-Americans post the Civil War were settling here, and that building sits in one of our little freedmen’s areas, it sits in Wheatsville, or Wheatville that was named for James Wheat who founded that area,” Agboga said.
Now the Franzetti building is one of the last visible reminders of the Wheatville community, the first black community in Austin after the Civil War.
It was named for James Wheat, also an emancipated slave, who lived just down the road from the Freedmen’s current building. Austinites may recognize the name as it has been preserved in the Wheatsville Co-Op.
The community there disappeared after the city’s Jim Crow laws in 1928 pushed black Austinites to east Austin.
Agboga believes the Franzetti building is something very important for present-day Austinites to see.
“So we have to preserve as much as we can of that history so that those who are coming here who enjoy Austin as it is today can understand that that growth is not just current, it came from someplace, it came from, in many ways, some hardships,” she said.
She hopes that whatever new development comes in not only preserves the history of the Franzetti building, but finds a way of celebrating it.
“My hope is that we can preserve it because not only was it built in 1869, it was built by a freed slave who helped build Austin to what it was today,” she said.