Travis County residents urge commissioners to preserve public ownership of Palm School site

This 1940 file photo from Austin History Center shows Palm School while it was still in use as an elementary school.

This 1940 file photo from Austin History Center shows Palm School while it was still in use as an elementary school.

Travis County residents urged the Commissioners Court to keep the Palm School site in downtown Austin under public ownership during a public hearing Oct. 22.

“Now, in our community today, we’re seeing gentrification pushing more of our communities of color and our low-income families out. And we keep doing business the same way,” Travis County resident David King said. “We’re about to optimize the value of the land to make lots of money—but not for the communities that are negatively impacted by this decision, but for those who are already doing well.”

Residents were speaking about a draft set of restrictive covenants, which commissioners approved in June.

“In general, restrictive covenants are rules included in the property deed that must be followed by any owner of the Palm School property to ensure its historic and cultural preservation,” Planning Project Manager Allison Fink told commissioners.

Established in 1892, Palm School is a former elementary school that predominantly served Latino students. Most recently, the building was used as office space for Travis County staff, who will move to a different location in 2021.

Travis County owns the Palm School building, while the city of Austin owns the adjacent 37-acre Palm Park.

The park is being redeveloped by Waterloo Greenway, a local nonprofit, as part of a larger project to create a new parks district in downtown Austin.

Many residents urged commissioners to protect the site’s cultural heritage by keeping it in public hands.

“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 Saldana, a county resident whose relatives attended Palm School in the 1940s and ‘50s. “Despite overwhelming opposition to any new development on your site based on your recent survey and [public feedback], I remain disappointed that you are still pursuing a deed-restricted sale of the site.”

Peter Mullan, CEO of Waterloo Greenway, said he thought the county’s current process is a “a huge, huge missed opportunity” and urged them to consider converting the site into a museum that honors its history.

Mullan’s predecessor, Melba Whatley, also spoke.

“The possibility of a high rise there [on the Palm School site] is surely creating a barrier, not just physically but emotionally and figuratively, that we will long, long regret,” she said.

Commissioners weighed the community interest in Palm School against the county’s fiscal responsibilities.

“We all owe everything to the taxpayers, and so I think that it should behoove us to really listen to the taxpayers in Austin and Travis County,” Commissioner Margaret Gomez said.

Commissioner Jeff Travillion echoed her sentiment.

“We cannot be so interested in the financial part of the equation that we lose our souls,” he said.

Commissioners have discussed for months the need to find alternative sources of revenue in light of a new property tax revenue cap that will take effect in 2020.

“The county simply doesn’t have the funds to operate a museum,” said Commissioner Brigid Shea, who encouraged residents to advocate for the city to take over the site.

This summer, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt proposed such a deal, through which the county would swap Palm School for ownership of two city-owned properties and a portion of local hotel occupancy tax revenue.

Shea said there has yet to be “meaningful traction” on this proposal.

Commissioners will vote on whether to adopt the drafted terms at an Oct. 29 meeting.
By 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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