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Hotel strives to preserve Austin’s heritage, but not all of its heritage trees

Friday, October 21, 2016 by Cate Malek

The developers of the Carpenter Hotel are trying to strike a delicate balance between protecting the environment, preserving Austin’s heritage and creating a viable business.

That was the argument they made before the Environmental Commission on Oct. 19, when they asked for approval to remove two heritage pecan trees from the Carpenters Hall site in South Austin, which they plan to turn into a boutique hotel. The commissioners supported their plan in a vote of 7-1, with Commissioner Peggy Maceo opposed and commissioners Mary Ann Neely and Michael Moya absent.

“I am keenly aware of how this site is emblematic of all the things that the city is trying to preserve, and those qualities are just as important to us,” said Jack Barron, one of the owners of the Mighty Union, the group developing the Carpenter.

“Our involvement in this project was predicated on our ability to preserve the existing Carpenters Hall, and as many trees and as much green space as possible,” said Barron.

The proposed hotel will be located at 411 Jessie Street, near the intersection of South Lamar and Barton Springs Road. It is the site of Carpenters Hall, which was built in the 1940s to house Austin’s carpenters union. Although the building is not listed as one of Austin’s historic structures, it is “a gem of midcentury institutional architecture,” said Zach Hunter, the hotel’s landscape architect.

Mighty Union’s goal is to create “very quirky hotels,” Barron said. “This is not a luxury hotel. It is not high volume megachain. … Our hotels are embedded in a deep sense of place.”

Nonetheless, although Commissioner Hank Smith agreed that the proposed hotel exemplifies how he wants to see this area of Austin redeveloped, other commissioners argued that their task was not to evaluate the development itself. Instead, they said, the commission is charged with maintaining Austin’s policy on preserving heritage trees.

Austin’s urban forest has been protected by city ordinance since 1983, and the city works to preserve any tree over 19 inches in diameter. The two trees that will be removed are both more than 30 inches. Also, although one of the trees has significant damage, neither tree poses an imminent hazard, another factor that would allow them to be removed.

“We’re tasked with preserving the tree so that it can naturally die,” said Chair Marisa Perales. “So if there’s a way to preserve it, then we have to consider that.”

Ultimately, the commission was unable to see a way to preserve the two trees without threatening other heritage trees on the site or preventing a “reasonable use of the property.” It also considered that the developers have limited the impervious cover on the site to 65 percent instead of the 90 percent allowed by the city and have included only the bare minimum of parking required by the city.

Although the commission decided to allow the removal of the trees, it asked Mighty Union to reuse them in the remodeled building, either as part of the building or as an art piece. The commission felt the action would be a fitting tribute to the site’s original use as a gathering space for carpenters.

“It’s a nod to the heritage of the site,” said Commissioner Andrew Creel.

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