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Arts Commission eyes MACC-Palm School link in supporting city’s push for preservation

Thursday, September 19, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

The Austin Arts Commission has signed on in support of the city’s goal of preserving the Palm School property as a historic cultural facility, in a nod to the ongoing negotiations with Travis County for ownership of the downtown site.

The commission voted unanimously to write a letter in support of the city’s push to take control of the property either through purchase or a land swap with the county. The letter will come back in final form for approval at next month’s meeting.

The decision came after a presentation from the Save Palm School Coalition, the community group that is pushing against the possible commercial development of the historic school site if Travis County commissioners elect to put it on the market. The property’s full value is estimated at around $50 million.

In May, City Council voted to preserve the school – the second-oldest elementary school site in the city – as part of its ambitious plan for the expansion and redevelopment of the Austin Convention Center. In June, the county voted to keep the building standing but proposals for its possible subdivision and development have become public, sparking concern from the local Mexican American community about the potential loss of an important cultural site.

Activist and former AISD Board Member Paul Saldaña said Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt’s “moving target” asking price for the Palm School – rumored to be $53 million or a lesser amount with the city and county exchanging other property – is taking unfair advantage of the site’s historical importance.

“Right now I believe we’re being held hostage by the county and the city. Travis County owns it and will vote in a couple weeks to enter into restrictive covenant which will allow it to be subdivided to build something crazy which violates the integrity of Palm School and of Palm Park,” he said. “We don’t need to continue to maximize the real estate value on the history of black and brown indigenous people. We’ve done that enough and I think it’s important to go on record in support of our City Council members and also saying to Travis County commissioners that you care about the history of Palm School and Palm Park.”

Currently the county is taking public comments on the restrictive covenants that would guide any future use of the property. The comment period closes Friday with a vote by the commissioners expected by the end of the month.

City and county representatives are also reportedly in ongoing negotiations regarding the site, which the city would prefer to use to build connections with its neighboring Palm Park property, a possibly expanded convention center and the nearby Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center.

Arts Commission Chair Jaime Castillo said it’s likely that the best use of the Palm School is as a museum and cultural learning space, with the possibility of hosting arts and music events to help address the programming overflow from the MACC. More important, he said, is that the city’s takeover and stewardship of a building that is currently used for office space would show that Austin values the heritage of Mexican Americans.

“If the city were to purchase the Palm School I would see that as a gesture of respect and honor for Mexican Americans and their place in Austin’s history,” he said. “Having the MACC close by could strengthen them both because they could serve as complementary cultural touchstones. That would be a way for the city to say, We don’t want to forget where we’ve been.”

Photo by Nick Amoscato made available through a Creative Commons license.

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