The outdoor graffiti park on the far west end of downtown, located at 1008 Baylor Street atop the crumbling remains of a failed Castle Hill condo development, is about as close to a sacred site for the new generation of the Keep Austin Weird set we’ve got these days. The only remaining step for its canonization, in keeping with the historical examples of the Armadillo World Headquarters, Liberty Lunch, and so forth, is for it to shut down. Well, I’ve got good news!
We’ve known development was in the cards for quite a while at the site, but it looks like it’s finally moving forward in earnest — a permit was filed with the city late last week for the gallery’s demolition, clearing the hillside for a likely residential project.
Officially known as the HOPE Outdoor Gallery, the graffiti park’s success can be attributed both to its edgy, urban-exploratory vibe, and for an unwritten tolerance of amateur tagging — sure, the HOPE folks say they require prior registration for any new artworks, but I’d be very surprised if everyone I’ve seen spray painting on the hillside’s exposed concrete walls over the years took the time to fill out the proper paperwork.
It’s obviously sad to see such a unique contributor to Austin’s enormous cultural cachet lose its iconic central location, and I’m on the fence about whether the gallery’s new Carson Creek Ranch outpost will maintain the same energy at a site so far removed from the downtown area. But it helps to remember that the graffiti park’s Baylor Street address was always privately owned, and its roughly seven-year lifespan at a property in one of the city’s most valuable districts was only made possible by the willingness of the site’s owner, Vic Ayad, to play ball with the people behind the creation of the HOPE gallery in the first place.
Though Ayad, a founder of the local investment firm Castle Hill Partners, would have been well within his rights to hire some private security goons to chase away taggers 24/7, he instead recognized the value of the site for its already-in-progress artistic uses, paying property taxes on the address and foregoing any development until the HOPE founders settled on Carson Creek Ranch for its relocation. In a city so famously suspicious of density, that’s not such a bad look for a real estate developer.
So, what can we expect from the upcoming residential project? Local firm Mid-City Development and its founding principal Bryan Cumby purchased the property from Ayad last year, and judging by that company’s 1010 West 10th condos just down the street from the gallery site, along with the Rhode Partners-designed J. Bouldin residences I considered one of the most interesting multifamily projects in the city last year, we can at least look forward to a well-designed building.
We don’t have a clue about this potential project’s timeline, but the HOPE gallery will supposedly vacate the site by June, according to the Statesman story that broke the news of its relocation in the first place. The filing of this demolition permit could mean any number of things — maybe the gallery’s getting demolished earlier than they planned, or perhaps the developers are just insanely prepared and getting on top of their demo permits several months in advance. Nobody tells me this stuff, I’m just reading the tea leaves.
Let’s go back to that “failed condo development” thing. The only reason all that concrete was there at 1008 Baylor Street to get tagged in the first place is due to Le Palestra, a massive turkey of a condo built at the site in the mid-1980s.
At the time, the developers took out $2.27 million in loans to build the project, but by late 1985 they had filed suit against a number of subcontractors, citing structural problems that allegedly included a wildly inadequate foundation for the hillside structure — I’ve heard at least one Austin local claim the building was actually sliding down the hill, but I’m as yet unable to confirm that particularly hilarious detail. Anyway, get a load of all those chimneys!
Still, it’s clear times were bad at Le Palestra, with the photos above showing what an advanced stage of construction the project reached before apparently being declared uninhabitable. NCNB Texas National Bank purchased the property for $377,000 at a foreclosure auction in 1989, and much of the developer’s lawsuit was settled in private, with the gory details never making it to local news.
The buildings would remain empty until their demolition sometime in the early 1990s, with only the foundation remaining on the site — concrete slabs are pretty expensive to tear apart, as it turns out. The site remained a sore spot for folks in the neighborhood for some time:
“It’s a definite eyesore,” said Richard McCown of the Austin Neighborhoods Council. “It’s been an eyesore ever since they tried to put up Le Palestra. It’s been a blight on the neighborhood and the hillside for some time.”
Daniel Traverso of the Castle Hill Conservation Committee said neighborhood activists had testified before the City Planning Commission about the instability of the hill, but that developers didn’t listen.
“Now it’s kind of like a giant monument to greed,” he said. “We hate it. It was once a beautiful hill. It had some 200-year-old trees on it. Now it’s a big scar.”
“We’re all sick about it, and we’ve gotten used to being sick about it,” he said.
Traverso said he hopes newer zoning laws will prohibit construction of any type of high-rise structure on the property.
— Austin American-Statesman, August 23, 1990
And that’s not even the last time someone tried to build a residential building on the site. Back in 2007, Castle Hill Partners and architect Dick Clark, another former owner of the property, pursued a condo project called Castle East at 1008 Baylor Street. The financial crisis a year later probably put the brakes on this plan, and once the graffiti park emerged at the site, the owners had no reason to rush.
Since the property’s ownership has changed, we have no idea whether the new residential project planned by Mid-City will resemble these previous designs at all. Still, even from the plans above you can tell it was an interesting building, with an organic look designed to follow the natural slope of the hillside. Here’s hoping the new project does something equally interesting.
Also, one last piece of advice — you guys should probably look into some kind of anti-graffiti coating for this thing.