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County presses pause on Palm School, pending community input

Friday, July 2, 2021 by Seth Smalley

On Tuesday, the Travis County Commissioners Court discussed what to do about the Palm School. On June 15, commissioners rejected the city’s 2020 offer to buy the Palm School building. The news disappointed many in the Latino community who had hoped a transfer of ownership would take place so that the building would remain a fully public space, preserving its Mexican American cultural heritage.

Diana Ramirez, with the Economic Development and Strategic Investments Office, briefed commissioners on the county’s past and future plans for the building. She reviewed the actions the Commissioners Court has taken over the past three years “to formalize the court’s commitment to the protection and restoration of the historic and culturally important school.”

She highlighted the fact that past actions will result in additional funding for social service programs and enhance connectivity from the county-owned Palm School to the city-owned Palm Park.

“At no time has a commissioner or staff contemplated dropping a big tower on the north portion of the Palm School grounds to maximize revenue,” Ramirez noted. “Nor do we do think the private sector would be interested in doing that.”

She mentioned that commissioners have been soliciting community input on the plan for the building since 2017, via advisory boards, committees, community hearings and surveys. The result, Ramirez said, is the court’s commitment to preserve and restore Palm School.

“This includes ensuring that all restoration is done in compliance with federal standards for the rehabilitation of historic properties, requiring that Palm School achieve historic designation status at the state and national levels,” she said.

She underscored commissioners’ prior commitment to public uses of the building as museum space, nonprofit office space, community event space, committee meeting rooms and artist studio space.

“The programming of that space should focus on honoring and emphasizing the cultural heritage of the site. This language is included in the restrictive covenants,” Ramirez told the court.

She also noted that 20 percent of the space is not required to be dedicated to public use, but will instead be needed “for mechanical housekeeping and closets, and other administrative and support uses.”

Ramirez called on commissioners to approve an amendment that would allow her office to work on the “entitlements to the property” before moving to the pre-construction phase of the process.

Given the high community interest in the project’s outcome, Ramirez called on commissioners to look into how resources from the American Rescue Plan Act could be used to assist in community engagement.

She also noted that commissioners had committed to use proceeds from the ground lease or any future sale of Palm School to comply with the restrictive covenants and “to further invest in its social service programs.”

Commissioner Margaret Gómez highlighted the need for more community contact.

“It’s been a year with Covid and we haven’t had any conversations with city officials,” Gómez said. “I think we probably need to have a public meeting of some sort so we can bring the community up to date with what we have been discussing.”

Gómez proposed a motion to pause further steps until commissioners have had an opportunity to meet with the community. All commissioners voted in approval.

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

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