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Planning Commission backs zoning change for Hancock area hotel

Thursday, November 14, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

Plans for a boutique hotel at the 1928 Commodore Perry Estate sailed through the Planning Commission Tuesday night, despite opposition from the Hancock Neighborhood Association.


Commissioners unanimously approved the zoning request in an 8-0, vote, with Commissioner Dannette Chimenti absent.


“It’s obviously a very contentious case. It’s a difficult site for a lot of us to think about. It’s hard when the measures and proof of doing something great and positive for the site are the same measures or comments that are being used as though this is negative and terrible,” said Commissioner Stephen Oliver. “I see a plan on paper that I respond to well. I think of what the long history of this development has been and I do see concessions. I do see it being held back significantly. The density has been lowered. Impervious cover has been thought about. The trees are protected.”


“I would be easily in favor of this,” said Oliver.


Perry Estate LLC and developer Clark Lyda have already restored the main estate and gardens at 710 East 41st Street, and plan to retain several of the other buildings including the chapel and greenhouse, though several other buildings associated with St. Mary’s Academy will be demolished to make way for the hotel.


Last month, the Historic Landmark Commission approved Historic zoning for the mansion and garden. But, in order to move forward with plans to develop the rest of the 5.69 acre lot, developers will need a zoning change on several tracts of the property. For years, the property has been home to schools and churches.


Developers hope to build a boutique hotel with a maximum of 55 rooms, up to 20 residential units, a farm-to-table restaurant, meeting center and underground parking.


Attorney Steve Metcalfe told the commission that the change to Community Commercial (GR) was deceptive, calling it “GR Light” in practice. After three years of negotiations with the neighborhood, many of the uses in that zoning category had been preemptively prohibited, leaving just over a dozen that will still be allowed.


The Hancock Neighborhood Association opposes the change, and voted formally in March to do so by secret ballot. The neighborhood has a petition against the change, but it currently stands at just more than 15 percent, which is below the 20 percent needed to be valid.


Opponents of the project filled City Council Chambers, wearing stickers on their chests to illustrate their position.


Neighbors that were opposed to the project cited environmental, noise and cultural concerns as well as worrying about commercial creep into the neighborhood.


“It creates a walled compound, not a pedestrian community. It reverses the traditional role of Red River in this section as a protective boundary, and treats it as a commercial corridor,” said neighbor Mark Burch. “This isn’t a vision, it’s a nightmare.”


Though there is opposition to the zoning change, the project also has its proponents. Preservation Austin supports the plan, as do several neighbors – including the current president of the Hancock Neighborhood Association.


“I think this is an ideal plan to re-purpose this historic property. Personally, I don’t think anyone would want to see the mansion demolished and the land chopped up into residential lots. I also consider this plan to be minimal development,” said neighbor Polly Henderson, whose parents once owned the property. Henderson has lived in the neighborhood for more than 30 years, and also worked at the school.


Addressing neighborhood concerns about noise from weddings and other events that will be held on the property, Henderson pointed out that while she was at the school, they taught drumming and rock and roll outdoors, as well as holding student and brass concerns outdoors without complaint.


Neighbor Raphael Anwar said that he moved to Central Austin, in part, in order to embrace a walkable, sustainable community and avoid sprawl.


“I didn’t want to be a part of that problem, so I bought in Central Austin. And now I’m in Central Austin and I realize, actually, a lot of people in Central Austin are kind of part of the problem,” said Anwar. “We need to change fundamentally in order to not sprawl… We need to change our land use.”


“Change is hard. Change is painful. Change is scary,” said Anwar. “I value this development because it offers what I’m looking for in a central neighborhood. Developers aren’t evil. Well, not all of them are evil. The developer in this case has an emotional attachment to the property. He’s not tearing down anything. He’s actually adding residential units. I think this is going to become not just a showcase for Hancock, but a showcase for the entire city of Austin.”

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