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Travis County commissioners endorse preserving Palm School

Wednesday, June 5, 2019 by Jack Craver

Supporters of preserving the Palm School won a partial victory Tuesday when the Travis County Commissioners Court voted unanimously in favor of restrictions that will prevent the historic building from being demolished by a future landowner.

However, the issue of who will own the building, which for decades has been the home of the Travis County Health and Human Services Department, remains unresolved.

The use and ownership of the property has been a source of tension between County Judge Sarah Eckhardt and Austin City Council, which last month unanimously approved a resolution calling for the property to remain publicly owned and used as a cultural center or museum celebrating Mexican American culture.

The former elementary school was in operation for 84 years, serving mostly Mexican American students until it closed in 1976. In recent years it has served as offices for the Travis County Health and Human Services Department, but the county plans to relocate offices in 2021.

City Council envisions the property being part of a larger revitalization of that area of downtown, linking to an expanded convention center, the Waller Creek Chain of Parks and a renovated Brush Square Park.

Eckhardt has replied that if the city wants the property, it should buy it. She has suggested the property is valued at far more than $20 million, even if the future owner is required to maintain the current structure.

Eckhardt’s preferred compromise is for the county to sell the property to a private entity, with conditions that the historic portions of the building be preserved.

The Tuesday vote directed the county attorney to draw up restrictive covenants that will commit any future owner of the land to preserve and maintain the historic structure. Other parts of the building, some of which were added as recently as the 1980s, would be eligible for redevelopment.

The court also endorsed restrictions committing the future property owner to restoring the building within three years of acquiring it and prohibiting any new construction on the site prior to restoration. Two other proposed restrictions would reserve 40 percent of the “occupiable space” of the historic structure to a use that “honors, emphasizes and increases understanding of the Mexican-American heritage of the site” and 40 percent for other “community-benefiting uses,” such as artist studio space, community meeting rooms or office space for nonprofits.

After the county attorney draws up the language, the court will make a final decision on the covenants.

While at least three of the five members of the court expressed a desire for the building to serve a public function, the same number said they wanted to make sure the county got some money out of the deal.

Commissioner Margaret Gómez said she did not want to sell the property at all. She urged the city and county to work together, saying both had “assets” to contribute as part of a collaboration.

Commissioner Jeff Travillion said that while he was sensitive to the financial value of the property, it was a critical piece of history to preserve. Too many other symbols of Mexican American and African American heritage have been lost in recent years, he said.

Commissioner Brigid Shea said she wanted the building preserved but that the county, particularly operating under the new revenue restrictions approved last week by the Legislature, was not in a position simply to give away such a valuable piece of property to the city. Nor was the county in a position to continue to own and operate it, she said.

Shea suggested the city buy the building with Hotel Occupancy Tax revenue, a funding stream she noted was not available to the county. While the county is allowed to levy a 2 percent venue tax on hotel rooms that could be used to acquire or build civic spaces, it is not currently able to do so because the city is using that tool to pay off the debt from the last convention center expansion in 2002.

Eckhardt repeatedly emphasized her commitment to preserving the site’s cultural legacy but said the county owed it to taxpayers to get some money out of the deal to fund critical services. The county didn’t have the money to preserve and restore the property itself, she said.

“My fear is that if we don’t capture the market value, the property will sit there while we look for funding,” she said.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty agreed, saying that beyond the historic structure he wanted the county to get as much as possible out of the sale. If the city is interested, he said, it should be able to match whatever a private developer would pay.

Sylvia Orozco, who co-founded the Mexic-Arte Museum on Congress Avenue four decades ago, used her own organization as an example for what the Palm School could become. The value of the property comes from much more than its financial worth, she said.

Political strategist and activist Paul Saldaña similarly urged the court to preserve the entire property, not just the historic structure. Allowing a tall building next to the school would “really violate the integrity of the efforts” to preserve the site’s historic character, he said.

Council Member Kathie Tovo, the author of the Council resolution on the issue, also called for preservation of both the “Palm School and the Palm site,” and said she looked forward to talks between the city and the county on how to do that.

The Commissioners Court, Eckhardt said, has been in contact with City Manager Spencer Cronk and will likely meet with him later this month to discuss potential deals for the property.

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

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