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County rebuffs city’s offer to buy Palm School, leaving its future uncertain

Monday, June 28, 2021 by Amy Smith

In a vote few people were aware of until last week, the Travis County Commissioners Court rejected the city of Austin’s offer to purchase the historic Swante Palm School building on the eastern edge of downtown.

Community activists, who for years have advocated preserving the school to honor its Mexican American history, were not aware of the commissioners’ June 15 vote until late last week, when the county formally notified the city in a letter dated June 22. City Manager Spencer Cronk had sent the offer letter in February 2020.

Now the county is set to consider the restoration and redevelopment of Palm School at its meeting on Tuesday. The agenda item includes a staff recommendation to sell or lease the building and to redevelop the northern parcel of the tract.

The news comes as a blow to many in Austin’s Latino community who have wanted the school to transfer to city hands and remain a public space. “We have been completely blindsided by all that’s taken place,” community organizer Paul Saldaña said, adding that the county and city have not been completely transparent about this latest action concerning the school, one of the most significant repositories of Mexican American culture in the eastern edge of downtown.

The commissioners’ June 15 agenda language seemed vague and did not mention Palm School as the parcel of land to be considered in executive session. As such, the agenda item and the decision largely flew under the radar until last week. Additionally, the proposal to build a new women’s jail was on the same meeting agenda and garnered most of the community’s attention and media coverage.

Council Member Kathie Tovo has long championed the city’s purchase of the school for restoration and preservation and she led on initiating a planning process that would tie together parks and other important cornerstones of this section of downtown. The school is located in District 9, which Tovo represents.

“I was disappointed of course that our initial offer was rejected, but I am absolutely determined to continue to move forward with the opportunity to potentially collaborate with Travis County,” Tovo said last week. “The community is extremely supportive of seeing Palm School remain in public hands and seeing the building preserved and used for an active public purpose. Having it possibly pass into private hands (for redevelopment) would be extremely detrimental, in my opinion. It would really curtail opportunities to do some wonderful placemaking and planning strategies.”

The commissioners’ action comes just as the city has kicked off the Palm District Planning Initiative as part of an endeavor to create more connectivity in an area that includes Palm School, Rainey Street (once home to many Latino households), the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, Waller Creek, the Red River Cultural District, and the Austin Convention Center. The planning district is bound north and south by 15th Street and Lady Bird Lake, and east and west by Interstate 35 and Trinity Street.

The county’s rejection of the city’s offer throws yet another wrench into the city’s long-running plans to obtain control of the school, or at the least, form a partnership with the county to ensure Palm School stays in public hands for public use. The rejection also adds another bullet point in the structure’s increasingly lengthy timeline of events regarding the city and county’s on-again, off-again bargaining process.

Still, a $10 million offer is considered a lowball figure given the downtown real estate boom and the building’s $30 million-$50 million appraisal.

Commissioner Margaret Gómez, who grew up in Austin and is regarded as the point person on the school’s fate, said she made the motion to reject the city’s offer because the property is worth much more than $10 million. “We don’t know what the appraisal is going to be now that all properties are being appraised again.”

Selling the school for $10 million, Gómez said, “would be like trying to give away an asset. I still prefer that the county maintain that asset so that we can have something to take to the table. The city owns Palm Park behind the school, and to me, that’s a good indication that we could be partners.

“I know it’s on a very expensive corner, and I know developers really want to get it to do some other things, but to me it’s a historical building and it has a wonderful history going all the way back to the 1800s. There’s a real, real strong tie to the Mexican American community and it has a lot of historical value, so in my mind it’s a Travis County asset and I think it could lead to a better partnership with the city.”

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Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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