Plans for historic Palm School in downtown Austin remain unclear


The city of Austin’s second-oldest elementary school, which served a largely Latino student body for more than 80 years and recently had been used as office space for Travis County’s Health and Human Services Department, will soon be empty.

“We understand that there’s this incredible real estate property on the corner of Cesar Chavez and I-35 called the Palm School,” said Luis Rodriguez, president and CEO of the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce at a May 14 meeting of the Travis County Commissioners Court.

With county staff moving to a new office on Airport Boulevard, the future of this historic building remains uncertain.

In May 2018, the Travis County Commissioners Court approved the creation of the Palm School Advisory Board, which is charged with drafting recommendations for the deed-restricted sale or long-term lease of the property, considering its cultural, historic and real estate value.

“It has monetary value, obviously,” said Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt at a 2017 town hall meeting. “It’s a pretty hot block, and I think we all know that. But it also has historic value to our community, and those two things are not mutually exclusive. I believe that we can find balance between the monetary value and community value by loading up the property with restrictive covenants.”

Since the advisory board was formed, it has held community meetings, distributed a community survey and drafted recommendations for the Commissioners Court.

Most recently, on April 3, the board presented its recommendations and findings to the community in the hopes of gaining more feedback.

Based on 359 survey responses, the preferred community uses for the property include an art gallery, event space and museum.

“Austin-Travis County history has largely ignored Mexican-American and Latino contributors,” said Paul Saldana, a long-time Austin resident and public relations consultant who spoke on the topic at the May 14 Commissioners Court meeting. “Too often our historic places have been sacrificed in the name of city and/or county progress.”

According to a presentation given by the advisory board at the April 3 community meeting, its recommendations will be informed by four factors: cultural significance, historic integrity, real estate value and return on investment.

Notably, the county needs to ensure that the sale of or rent from the property helps offset the costs of relocating its health and human services department to their new facility.

Any future plans for the property also need to take into consideration its proximity to Palm Park.

The park is currently being redeveloped by the Waller Creek Conservancy as part of its wider effort to create a new parks district for Austin.

“Overwhelmingly, community members have encouraged us to plan the future of Palm Park around its history with Palm School,” per the conservancy’s website. “The revitalization of the Palm School site represents an enormous opportunity for the new Palm Park and for the city, in general.”

The advisory board’s next step is to seek approval from commissioners on its recommendations for the property. A date has not yet been set for the vote.

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Emma Freer
Emma Freer began covering Central Austin for Community Impact Newspaper in 2017. Her beat includes the Travis County Commissioners Court and local business news. She graduated from Columbia Journalism School in 2017.
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