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Palm School, c. 1920s

Preservation idea complicates Palm School plans

Wednesday, October 21, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt’s plan to sell off a valuable piece of downtown property appeared to have hit a snag at Commissioners Court on Tuesday.

Members of Austin’s Mexican-American community showed up to urge the commissioners to preserve the Palm School building at the corner of East Cesar Chavez Street and I-35.

Gilberto Rivera of La Raza Roundtable told the court that he would like the building, which is currently home to the Travis County Health and Human Services Department, to be converted into a history museum dedicated to Austin’s Mexican-American heritage.

“The African-American community has the Carver Museum, and we have the Bob Bullock (Texas State History Museum), but there’s no museum for the Mexican-American community here in Austin,” Rivera said.

Rivera’s grassroots effort poses a political dilemma for Eckhardt and her fellow commissioners. The policy to this point called for the divestment of the property in the name of padding county coffers enough to better absorb the impact of the proposed $287 million Civil & Family Courts Complex bond that voters are deciding on this November.

As it stands, the Travis Central Appraisal District has valued the land at $21 million, a sum that is buoyed by the land’s proximity to the Waller Creek revitalization project.

The county workers who occupy the building now will be relocated to a new space on Airport Boulevard within two years, giving the county an opening to cash in and, in Eckhardt’s words, “roll it into someone else’s hands.”

To do that, the county must first determine which parts of the Palm School building are actually historical. As the Austin Monitor reported earlier this month, the structure was originally built in 1892 but has been added onto and modified several times throughout the decades.

On Tuesday, Travis County Historical Commission Chair Bob Ward tried to make the case that even the additions are historic by virtue of simply being old.

“But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re worthy of preservation,” Eckhardt countered.

That sentiment was not universally held on the dais. Commissioner Margaret Gómez urged a deliberative approach to consider the full range of potential uses for the building. She pointed out, “There are a lot of people in the community who have lots of memory about their relatives going to school there.”

Another speaker from the public echoed Gómez’s observation and added a bit more fire to it. Gus Pena, who sat alongside Rivera and fellow activist Ernesto Calderon, said, “We have many military veterans that attended Palm School, and I believe strongly that it should be preserved. The integrity is there already. You talk about building billion- or million-dollar courthouses – what about the integrity of the community and the veterans that fought in Korea, in Vietnam, and other conflicts that attended Palm School?”

Ultimately, Eckhardt consented to delay action until the second week of November. However, as she did, she said she wanted to “manage expectations” by noting the limited extent of county government’s power.

“It’s not within our charge for museums and the type of preservation that the community may want or desire at this block,” Eckhardt explained. “But I have been contacted by council members from the city of Austin who are very interested. And cities actually do have that kind of authority as well as revenue sources for that kind of work.”

Whether the city would be willing to pay fair market value for the property remains to be determined.

Photo credit: Jordan-Ellison. (http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth125275/ : accessed October 20, 2015), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, http://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Austin History Center, Austin Public Library, Austin, Texas.

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