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Commissioners Court approves expensive survey of Palm School

Thursday, June 22, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

Travis County’s cost to determine just how much of its Palm School building is truly historic has reached the six-figure mark.

On Tuesday, the Travis County Commissioners Court unanimously approved peeling off $140,964 from a larger earmark in the current budget set aside for the historical assessment of the building that sits at Cesar Chavez Street and I-35.

The spending was just one part of a larger set of budget amendments. The court generally considers budget amendments at its weekly meetings, often with minimal controversy.

However, Palm School represents a microcosm of Austin’s struggle to preserve its cultural history while also making the most of a red-hot local economy.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, whose Precinct 3 includes downtown Austin, questioned the high cost of the assessment, which is aimed at determining which parts of the building are original and which parts have been added on since its original construction in the 19th century.

Mark Gilbert of the Planning and Budget Office explained that the assessment will be “extensive.”

“There’s a $15,000 laser survey that actually is really critical because there’s a lot of work that was done in that building,” he said. “That was never documented and there’s no way to really do that otherwise unless you are going to start tearing the building apart.”

Daugherty noted that he has heard rumors that the county intends to simply donate the building and the land in order for it to be transformed into a museum. He asked County Judge Sarah Eckhardt whether, in that case, the county should foot the high cost of the assessment.

Eckhardt responded that the county has made no official determination about what to do with the property and that staff is developing a request for proposals to solicit ideas from the private market. The assessment, she said, will help in the drafting of that document.

“We want to have an appropriately high baseline of information, common to all proposers, in a level playing field so that the proposer will come in with their most creative ideas and not be penalized because they made an assumption that was different from one of the other proposers,” she said.

Commissioner Jeff Travillion stressed that he wanted to see the historic building preserved as a cultural asset and not just a lucrative piece of real estate.

“As I’ve lived here for a little over 30 years, what I have seen is so many community heirlooms go by the wayside, and it is important for us to remember the cultural and historical context of the very few heirlooms that are left,” Travillion said.

Photo by Larry D. Moore [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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