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County hears pleas to preserve all of Palm School property

Wednesday, October 23, 2019 by Jack Craver

The future of the Palm School property remains unclear after a public hearing where activists implored the Travis County Commissioners Court not to sell any part of the land to a private developer.

While the court voted unanimously in June to approve restrictive covenants that will commit any future owner of the land to preserving the building, activists who showed up insisted the entire property be kept in the public domain as a way to celebrate the history of the former school and the Mexican American community it once served.

An appraisal pegged the value of the property – even with the development restrictions – at over $50 million. The Commissioners Court has also voted to use revenue generated from the sale for health and human services.

“I’m a firm believer that in order to know where we’re going as a community, we must remember where we’ve been,” said Paul Saldaña, a political consultant and former school board member who has led the Save Palm School initiative.

Several others, who had family members who attended the school in the first part of the 20th century, spoke of their desire to save one of the few remnants of what was once a predominantly Latino residential area.

Also showing up to oppose private development on the land were supporters of the Waterloo Greenway, known until recently as the Waller Creek Conservancy.

“The proposed development would completely sever the school from its surroundings,” Waterloo Greenway CEO Peter Mullan said.

The vision for the chain of parks along Waller Creek has always included maintaining the school property as a connection to Palm Park, he said.

Melba Whatley, one of the co-founders of the organization, said, “The possibility of a high-rise there is surely creating a barrier, not just physically and emotionally, that we will long, long regret.”

Speaking first, Commissioner Margaret Gòmez appeared to endorse the case made by activists. She said she wanted the county and the city to “work together to preserve Palm School” and keep the property publicly owned.

“I cannot just set all of those memories aside,” she said. “That is not the way I was raised. We have to respect the past. We have to respect our ancestors. We have to respect those people who came before us and upon whose shoulders we stand.”

Moreover, Gòmez pointed out that most of the public input the court has received has been against any new development on the property. Opposing the sale of the land is consistent with her view on democracy.

Commissioner Jeff Travillion similarly bemoaned the loss of minority cultures in East Austin. On E. 11th and E. 12th streets, he said, “Pretty soon it’s going to be hard to remember that African Americans once lived there.”

Like Gòmez, Travillion did not propose a specific path forward, saying only, “We’ve got to sit together and reason together and figure out how we can preserve our history and achieve our other goals as well, and I think that’s possible, but we have a lot of work to do.”

The other three members of the court expressed varying degrees of skepticism toward the activists’ request to maintain the property as a public facility.

“The county simply doesn’t have the funds to operate a museum,” said Commissioner Brigid Shea. “We are moving out of this property and we have no means of maintaining it, let alone put programming in it.”

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty said that while he appreciated the passion for preserving the property, the prospect of gaining tens of millions of dollars for key services was very attractive in a time of lean budgets.

“If we monetize this, the monies we would glean from that would go to (health and human services) and the things that I know all of y’all are supportive of,” he said.

Judge Sarah Eckhardt, after echoing Shea and Daugherty’s comments on financial restraints and the prospect of increased revenue for health services, also urged the activists to work alongside her in advocating for a land swap with the city.

The Travis County Exposition Center, which the Commissioners Court hopes eventually to reconstruct, currently sits on city-owned parkland. The Commissioners Court would be willing to accept that property, as well as the city-owned HealthSouth property that Eckhardt has suggested the county take over for use as a substance abuse treatment center, in exchange for the Palm School property.

The court is scheduled to act on the Palm School restrictive covenants on Oct. 29. Approval of the covenants does not necessarily seal the fate of the property, it only guarantees that if the property is sold, it will be subject to the development restrictions.

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

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