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Jo Clifton is the Politics Editor for the Austin Monitor.
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Thursday, May 16, 2019 by Jo Clifton
City eyes Palm School, bigger convention center
City Council Member Kathie Tovo, with assistance from Mayor Steve Adler, has produced a 23-page resolution outlining Council’s desire to create a plan for the southeast part of downtown, including use of the Palm School for cultural programming and expansion of the city’s convention center. The resolution is set for consideration on Council’s May 23 agenda.
The resolution sets out the need for planning the entire area, including Waller Creek Park, the Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center and the Rainey Street neighborhood.
While the convention center expansion looks at first glance to be the most controversial part of the resolution, the heart of the resolution relates to Palm School, which belongs to Travis County. And Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt is not ready to simply give away such a valuable piece of property.
As the resolution notes, Travis County commissioners appointed an advisory group to develop deed restrictions to govern the sale or long-term lease of Palm School in a “manner that balances and leverages its cultural, historic, and real estate value.” Commissioners are expecting a report from that group on June 4, according to Eckhardt.
Eckhardt told the Austin Monitor, “Mayor Adler and Council Member Tovo have both expressed their desire that Travis County give the property to the city. I have said repeatedly that they are welcome to offer to buy it.” She said the property is valuable from a financial, cultural and architectural perspective. Eckhardt said she is not sure exactly how much the property is worth, but it is “worth considerably more than $20 million.”
In addition, Eckhardt expressed the view that with “appropriate restrictive covenants, the private sector is likely to do a better job of preserving” Palm School. She added that given the revenue caps the Legislature seems intent on placing on counties, Travis County will need the money.
In response, Adler said, “I think that’s a very important cultural site and I would hate for anything to be built on that site between Waller Creek linear park and Palm School … I think that Palm School could be a really important part of the park, and the park could help activate public use of the Palm School and the use of the Palm School for public use could help activate the park.” One of the issues for Adler is whether Travis County might sell the school to a buyer who would put buildings between the school and the park.
According to Tovo’s resolution, a July 2017 staff memo “stated that several financing concepts for a convention center expansion could include additional funding for nearby historic sites such as Palm School.” However, there is no indication that the funding would be enough to purchase the property.
Eckhardt expressed an interest in using the funds for amenities in eastern Travis County, perhaps for health care facilities or something similar. “It would be our way of moving some wealth from the central business district … to outside areas that could use a deeper investment … I really do welcome them making a proposal,” Eckhardt said, adding that the Palm School is “a hot property.”
It is not clear whether the community would like the idea of transferring the historic building to a private entity, however, when the city is proposing ideas like turning Palm School into a Mexican American historical and cultural museum, or something similar. The resolution indicates that the public has expressed an interest in preserving the school but does not discuss sale to a private entity.
Precinct 1 Commissioner Jeff Travillion told the Monitor, “I can tell you this. I live in a community where so many of the historic buildings and so many of the communities have vanished, so it is really important to me from a cultural standpoint that the Palm be preserved. I’ve talked to Commissioner (Margaret) Gómez about this and I’ve talked to other leaders in the Hispanic community and it is important for the public to know that there was a time when significant Hispanic institutions and significant African American institutions were a part of the tapestry of Austin. We have to make sure we preserve some of those most significant things and certainly Palm School is in that category.”
Travillion went on to speculate about the possibility of a trade between Austin and Travis County of properties in order to allow the city to proceed with its master plan for the southeast quadrant of downtown.
Tovo’s co-sponsors along with Adler are Council members Pio Renteria, Delia Garza and Natasha Harper-Madison. In discussions with the Monitor, Tovo gave Adler considerable credit in writing pages 17-19, which address the convention center.
According to the resolution, if Council adopts the resolution, the city manager should present to Council “as much of this convention center expansion analysis and initial design as is available by July 31, 2019, and should present a timeline, if not already completed, for the design work and for the documents, actions, and ordinances necessary to adopt and initiate the additional hotel occupancy taxes” needed for the expansion.
Tovo said of the convention center expansion, “We have an opportunity to look at an expansion as a transformational moment and to really use the expansion to help design a vibrant district,” and make the convention center “an asset to the whole area.”
Tovo wrote on the City Council Message Board, “Over the course of many years, we have had disparate, fragmented planning around” these assets, including Palm School, the convention center, the MACC, Waller Creek, and the rest. “I believe we have a unique opportunity right now to bring together the various groups who have deep and vested ties in this area along with the many new individuals and businesses that now call this area home. As a city, we have an opportunity before us to creating a meaningful, comprehensive, and potentially healing plan that rights some of the wrongs that have resulted in stranded cultural resources, impaired mobility, and divided communities.”
Tovo told the Monitor, “I see this as an opportunity to focus on multiple things that have been going on in that geographic area that all need attention.” While she noted that “there is definitely direction with regard to exploring the convention center expansion … I think the more important framework (is) providing focused attention to planning the Palm district.”
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Key Players & Topics In This Article
Austin Convention Center: This city department operates the downtown convention center and associated events.
Kathie Tovo: Mayor Pro Tem on the Austin City Council, Tovo also represents District 9.
Mayor Steve Adler: Mayor of the city of Austin, elected in November 2014
Palm School: Currently the home of the Travis County Health and Human Services and Veteran Services building, the Palm School opened as one of the first elementary schools in 1892, and operated as an elementary school for 84 years. It is located at Cesar Chavez and IH-35.