Razing the Bar
It's hard to tell what Donald Jatho regrets the most: the changing landscape of downtown, or the disappearance of leather culture in Austin. Either way, these modern times are forcing the longtime owner of the Chain Drive to uproot his little Willow Street bar and rethink his target clientele, which used to be predominantly "leather."
As it happens, the Chain Drive is located on one of the hot pieces of real estate that Vignette Corp. wants to snap up for its new headquarters at Cesar Chavez and Red River. The proposed complex would extend southward past Willow Street and right up to the venerable Rainey Street neighborhood that's slated for a dramatic makeover of its own.
Vignette's plans hinge on a couple of factors: rezoning approval from the City Council and, of course, an "incentives" package -- or, put another way, a subsidies offer in which the city would pay as much as $25 million of the cost of moving Vignette downtown. In this case, the money would come not from the city's coffers but from tax revenues generated by the project. The rezoning issue sailed through the Planning Commission last month, but hit a snag on the way to City Council last week.
The council decided to hold off on the rezoning question (now scheduled for Dec. 14) in light of the controversy that erupted after a full-page, anti-subsidies ad appeared in the Nov. 24 edition of the Chronicle. Mark Tschurr, an Austin businessman who placed the ad, is leading the charge against the tide of taxpayer-funded subsidies the city is willing to share with private corporations willing to move downtown. Tschurr says his actions are independent of his role as president of the Save Our Springs Coalition.
In any case, Jatho says he isn't being caught off guard by the Vignette proposal. He has known since he relocated the Chain Drive to Willow Street in 1989 that his landlord, downtown landholder and developer Perry Lorenz, had big plans for the property. In fact, Jatho is surprised his bar has stayed put as long as it has. Two years ago, when the city was taking bids on Convention Center hotel projects, Lorenz had lined up a developer willing to bid on the project and build the hotel on his property, including the land where the Chain Drive sits. The hotel contract went to a rival firm, but Lorenz continued to scout around for someone else to buy the property and help turn the overlooked southeast pocket of downtown, including neglected lower Waller Creek, into a crown jewel of downtown. His hunt apparently ended at Vignette's door; but everything hinges now on whether the Austin-based software company moves ahead on the deal.
"Perry was up front from the beginning about what he wanted for this area, and I don't begrudge him trying to make a dollar on his property," Jatho says of Lorenz. "Perry," he adds, "is just a wonderful capitalist." Lorenz is equally charitable. He says the Chain Drive has been such a good tenant that he'll help Jatho search for another location if and when the time comes.
But with downtown being what it is these days, Jatho is certain his bar's new address won't be anywhere within the Central Business District. "It's just getting too expensive," he says. "I hear other gay bar owners talking about moving out of downtown, too, because of the parking problem and because of the expense."
Any chance that all the gay bars will settle into one neighborhood and create a gay and lesbian district? "What, are you kidding?" Jatho asks. "There's no way any neighborhood in town would welcome a gay bar."
But the Chain Drive has to lay down stakes somewhere. Jatho says he'd like to borrow a page from 'Bout Time, a popular working-class neighborhood bar in North Austin, and relocate his bar in South Austin, since most of his customers hail from that part of town anyway.
Once the bar settles into its new quarters, it may be forced to redefine itself. While most people refer to the Chain Drive as a leather bar, it's certainly not as leather as it used to be, Jatho says. "I think we're the closest thing you can get to leather in Austin," he explains. "But now I just call it a gay men's bar, where everyone is welcome ... we don't discriminate against drag queens or lesbians or anybody."
The demise of the leather culture may extend beyond Austin, though, says Jatho. "I was in San Francisco recently, and the leather scene just wasn't what it used to be. Maybe leather has had its day."