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Palm school

Palm School fate uncertain

Thursday, October 8, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

The fate of a historic building at the southeastern gateway of downtown Austin is up in the air as Travis County continues a gradual reshuffling of its valuable real estate portfolio.

The commissioners court will soon vote to start making early preparations to withdraw county workers from Palm School at East Cesar Chavez Street and I-35.

The building is currently the headquarters of Travis County Health and Human Services and houses roughly 70 employees. The county’s master plan envisions a full relocation of the department up to the county’s north campus on Airport Boulevard just south of Koenig Lane.

“Palm School is not an appropriate location to deliver those services,” Mark Gilbert of the Planning and Budget Office told the Austin Monitor on Wednesday. “Those clients are not in downtown Austin or on Rainey Street.”

Gilbert said the department could move out of the building as early as 2019, freeing the county’s hand to shop for proposals for the highly coveted real estate, which sits at the crossroads of the Rainey Street District, the Convention Center and East Austin (and is also across the street from an IHOP).

According to the Travis Central Appraisal District, the land is assessed at more than $21 million. Immediately to its west, construction workers are building the 37-story Fairmont Austin convention hotel. In other words, the possibilities for Palm School’s redevelopment could be worth a mint to the county.

But there is one tiny fly in the ointment that could limit any high-dollar proposals: Palm School has been a designated city of Austin landmark since 1980. And yet, despite the age of the original structure, it’s not exactly clear why, said Gilbert.

The building has seen multiple renovations and additions since it was originally built in 1892 as an eight-room schoolhouse. And the 35-year-old application for historical designation doesn’t mention any of the usual criteria by which buildings receive the consideration (noteworthy occupants, significant architectural style, etc.).

That’s why, according to Gilbert, the commissioners will soon vote to direct the Travis County Historical Commission to hire an architectural historian to take a closer look at the building and determine what makes it historical.

“They’ll answer questions like what windows are original, what are the major changes to the building, what do we call an addition,” said Gilbert. “That should help the decision-makers determine what they can do with the site.”

The land itself has a notable history, and Travis County is only the latest in a line of owners that includes the long-gone Republic of Texas. In 1839, Edwin Waller designated the property as a military reservation in his original site plan for the new capital city of the Republic. It was ceded to the United States government upon annexation in 1845 and remained the home of an armory until Congress voted to give the land to the city’s school system.

In 1892, Palm School was built and named for Svante Palm, a Swedish immigrant whose donation of books to the University of Texas doubled the size of that institution’s library. AISD closed Palm School in 1976. The building was in private hands for 10 years until the county bought it and moved in.

Now, nearly 30 years later, the county is looking to move out as part of its long-range plan to consolidate workers and services onto a handful of campuses. However, those plans need one major domino to fall into place, said Gilbert. Without voter approval of the $287 million bond to build a new Civil & Family Courts Complex, the county won’t have room for its reshuffling, leaving the fate of Palm School still in the air.

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