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Court approves Palm School protections but future of property uncertain

Wednesday, October 30, 2019 by Jack Craver

The Travis County Commissioners Court easily approved a set of restrictive covenants aimed at preserving the Palm School building if the county sells the property that is home to the historic structure.

The court voted 4-1 in favor of a set of restrictions drawn up by county staff several months ago that commit any future owner of the land not only to preserve most of the structure, but to invest in significant restoration work expected to cost millions of dollars.

The required restoration work will include any repairs or replacements of masonry, windows, doors, the roof and trim with materials that are in line with the original design of the Palm School. The owner will also be required to “fully landscape the premises in a manner compatible with the style and period of the structure.”

The restoration work must be completed within five years of purchase unless the owner can cite extenuating circumstances, including an “act of God, war, strike, labor or material shortage.”

The owner must also dedicate a substantial portion of the building to “space that serves a public purpose, including programming that honors, emphasizes and increases understanding of the cultural heritage of the site.”

Potential uses that advocates of the Palm School have floated include a museum or cultural center focused on Mexican American history and culture. In an interview Tuesday, Commissioner Jeff Travillion suggested the building could function as a visitors center that also highlights the history of the school and the predominantly Latino neighborhood it used to serve.

The property, located at a prime spot for development at Cesar Chavez and Interstate 35, might be attractive to a developer because of the land north of the building that the county is allowing to be developed for commercial use. However, the covenants put restrictions even on the private development, requiring, for instance, that it “maintain physical and visual connectivity between the Palm School and Palm Park.”

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, the lone dissenting vote, said he was very concerned that the restrictions would significantly diminish the value of the property.

“Be careful about what you put restriction-wise on this thing because it will greatly diminish what somebody is willing to give you,” he said.

An appraiser estimated the parcel would be worth more than $50 million even with the restrictions, but Daugherty said he would like to hear from people who work in commercial real estate about what they’d be willing to pay.

The court has committed to spending any money made from the sale of the property on health and human services.

“I’d say we take (all of the restrictions) out,” he said.

Nobody else on court was interested in entertaining Daugherty’s idea.

“I think the clear majority of the Commissioners Court feels this document strikes an appropriate balance,” said County Judge Sarah Eckhardt.

The debate over the restrictive covenants was not nearly as tense as the broader debate over the future of the Palm property that took place last week, when activists showed up to urge the Commissioners Court not to sell the property to a private entity under any circumstance.

That debate remains unresolved and it is not clear yet what type of private development a majority of the court is willing to support.

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

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