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Development controversy looms at Palm School

Friday, December 18, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

Travis County Commissioners Court is setting the stage in downtown Austin for another high-profile thumb-wrestling match between the pro-development community and historical preservationists.

As part of the emerging public discussion over the county’s ownership of the Palm School site at East Cesar Chavez Street and I-35, the court at its regular weekly meeting on Tuesday looked at officially deputizing a committee of county and city of Austin officials to steer plans for the property.

Commissioner Margaret Gómez sponsored the item, which also included seven recommended charges for the committee to adhere to.

“No. 1 would be exploring the preservation of the building and its historical designation and any future use, and explore additional historical designation,” Gómez explained before listing the six other charges, which included, among other things, community engagement, determining possible future uses of the building, getting a proper appraisal of the property and determining the financial impact to the county of preservation.

The building, originally built in 1892 and designated in 1980 as a City of Austin Landmark, currently houses the county’s Health and Human Services and Veterans Services central offices. The county’s master plan, however, calls for the approximately 70 workers at the site to soon relocate to new facilities set to be built at the county’s North Campus on Airport Boulevard.

As for the fate of the Palm School building, Gómez reminded the court on Tuesday that several community activists have suggested it be converted into a museum that features Mexican-American art. She said that kind of use would “fit perfectly” thanks to its proximity to the Mexican American Cultural Center and the Rainey Street Historic District – a quickly urbanizing sliver of downtown that was once predominately made up of low-slung bungalows occupied by working-class Mexican-American families.

Gómez said that Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, whose 9th District is home to Palm School, also expressed interest in the building’s preservation. Tovo and fellow City Council Member Pio Renteria – who attended Palm School when it was still owned and operated by AISD, Gómez said – are listed as members of the committee. Travis County Strategic Resource Planning Manager Belinda Powell, Facilities Management Department Director Roger El Khoury, Chair Bob Ward and Vice Chair May Schmidt of the Travis County Historical Commission, Dewitt Peart of the Downtown Austin Alliance and “community representative” Dora Hernandez round out the proposed committee.

Palm School 3

Palm School, built in 1892

Gómez’s hopes of preserving the property as-is failed to meet the enthusiastic approbation of Commissioner Gerald Daugherty. During the discussion on the dais, Daugherty raised his concern with the third proposed charge for the committee. It would direct the body to “obtain a current appraisal of the building and property, with emphasis on the historical value as well as the real estate value. The tract should be appraised with the historical zoning restrictions in place.”

“Council Member Kathie Tovo suggested that we do that,” Gómez told Daugherty, whose 3rd Precinct includes downtown Austin.

County Judge Sarah Eckhardt then interceded by divining the lone Republican on the dais: “I think where Commissioner Daugherty is going with this is his concern is, reading between the lines, the intention is to suppress the appraised value.”

Daugherty confirmed Eckhardt’s assessment and elaborated further on his anxiety about rushing to preserve a property valued by the Travis County Appraisal District at $21 million. “I’m concerned with that because I’m trying to find $15 to $20 million to not just lower the tax rate but also to figure out what we’re going to do with the civil and family courthouse structure,” he said. “We know we’ve got to do something. The public told us to go back to the drawing board and to look.”

Daugherty, of course, was referring to the failed referendum on the proposed $287 million bond to build a civil courts complex at West Fourth and Guadalupe streets. That plan absorbed withering criticism for its failure to maximize the financial potential of a prime piece of downtown real estate.

Daugherty conceded that Palm School may be worthy of preservation, but he suggested that the committee include more members who are less inclined to sign off on that route. When Gómez indicated that she would be amenable to that idea, Eckhardt decided to delay action on formally approving both the committee and its charges until January.

“I do hold out the hope that we can find a balance between the economic value and the cultural value,” Eckhardt said as she wrapped up the discussion. “That it’s not an either/or proposition.”

After the court adjourned Tuesday afternoon, the Austin Monitor reached out to Tovo, who explained her interest in the property.

“My great hope is that if Travis County decides it’s not a building it wants to keep in its portfolio, then it would sell it to the city of Austin,” Tovo said. She explained that its value is enhanced by the neighboring Waller Creek redevelopment project and the adjacent, city-owned Palm Park. “There’s tremendous amount of potential to create community gathering space,” Tovo said.

Palm Park

Palm Park sits just north of the Palm School site.

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