The Austin Chronicle

Perry Estate Looks to Next Chapter

By Amy Smith, June 6, 2014, News

With the 1928 Commodore Perry Mansion now fully restored and returned to its former glory, owners of the nearly 10-acre estate at 41st and Red River now want to remove two buildings on the property as they prepare to redevelop the site.

The two 1949-era buildings – one a former convent and the other the site of several schools over the years, including most recently the Griffin School – are contributing structures to the Perry estate's 2001 listing as a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places. For that reason, the request to demolish must win approval from the Historic Landmark Com­mission, which is set to consider the proposal on June 23. The case carries the recommendation of city staff, along with instructions for the preparation of a historic documentation package – with photos and a narrative history – to be archived at the Austin History Center.

Preservation Austin's executive committee, which typically advocates for retaining contributing historic structures, last year passed a resolution giving the demolition its blessing. "We do not see the removal of the classroom and convent as damaging to the integrity of the district," the group's resolution states.

The Hancock Neighborhood Association, an active stakeholder in the redevelopment efforts, isn't contesting the proposed demolition, either. But that's not to say individual residents aren't troubled by the idea of losing two of the nine contributing structures on the lush grounds behind a walled compound on the north edge of the Hancock Golf Course.

Neighbor Hal Morris, for one, objects to the structures' removal and argues instead for adaptive reuse as part of the redevelopment. "What bothers me is that when you look at the National Register listing, it's not just the Edgar ["Commodore"] Perry estate, it's the Edgar Perry estate and St. Mary's Academy," he said, referring to the school that took over the grounds a few years after Edgar Perry sold the site in 1944. The Catholic girls' school added several structures around 1949, including the two buildings that owner/developer Clark Lyda wants to raze to accommodate construction of a boutique hotel.

Zoning for the hotel is already in place. Lyda says he has every intention of keeping the remaining structures intact. Never­the­less, Morris is concerned that issuing demo permits on the site could open the door to more demolitions. "You should look at this in its totality – you shouldn't be picking and choosing buildings [to demolish]," he said. He notes that St. Mary's Academy is significant because it was the first parochial school in Central Texas. "The buildings aren't on the National Registry strictly for their architectural value, because everyone can candidly agree that the Griffin School – the classroom building – is not a pretty building, frankly ... but [it has] historical significance. To me that is something that should be a source of great pride for the community."

Hancock NA President Carolyn Palaima said that when Lyda came forward several years ago with plans to redevelop the site, the neighborhood's main concern was the preservation and restoration of the mansion, the property's grand anchor, which had fallen into disrepair. "We didn't get into the specifics of the individual buildings, we just wanted the estate to go forward with historic designation," Palaima said. "The restoration of the mansion was the first step in that process."

"We've always known that the buildings we're asking to be demolished would need to be removed to accommodate the redevelopment of the site," Lyda explained in a telephone interview. "It's almost 10 acres, but because of the number of heritage trees on the site, the amount of flood plain from Waller Creek, and the historically zoned area, the developable area of the site is only about three acres. That includes the removal of the two buildings," said Lyda, who attended high school on the property when the school was the Christian Academy of Austin. "I fell in love with the property then and have always thought it was the most wonderful property in Austin."

Even if Lyda does obtain the demolition permit, there are still other hurdles to clear. Another component of the redevelopment is the proposal to build nine free-standing condo units on the tract west of Waller Creek. He'll need a zoning change – from SF3 to SF6 – to go forward. The proposal is currently in the review process, according to Lyda's attorney, Michele Rogerson Lynch. Once the Hancock NA has signed off on the plan, as well as the larger Central Austin neighborhood group, she anticipates the proposal going to the Planning Com­mis­sion in July.

Meantime, the fast-changing Central Aus­tin neighborhood's plate is piling up with a number of other weighty issues, Palaima says, and the NA is wanting to tie up loose ends on the Perry Estate and move on to other things. "We're looking at the I-35 corridor [improvement project], and we're very interested in the urban rail issue" – which may include a rail stop at the nearby Hancock shopping center. There's also the Hancock Golf Course, where, to the neighborhood's relief, the city has agreed to move forward on gaining historic designation status, calming initial concerns about redeveloping the golf course. And then, of course, there's the role Hancock will play in the District 9 City Council race as the city moves toward a new system of government.

"The Perry Estate has taken up a lot of bandwidth for a long time and it's going to be good to have it settled," Palaima said. "Then we can really start looking at these other issues a little more closely."

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