Travis County judge unimpressed with Austin’s initial bid to buy historic Palm School

The Palm School (Emma Freer/Community Impact Newspaper)
The Palm School (Emma Freer/Community Impact Newspaper)

The Palm School (Emma Freer/Community Impact Newspaper)

Austin’s $10 million offer to buy the Palm School, a historic former elementary school at the center of city-county tensions, is being reviewed by county officials but leaves out much of what the county has long been asking for in a trade.

Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said in a statement that the proposal marks progress but does not match the value of the downtown property.

“After months of communicating with the City of Austin, I consider it progress to finally get a response,” Eckhardt said. “That said, previous appraisals have estimated the value of Palm School to be significantly higher.”

The Palm School building, which sits off East Cesar Chavez Street, operated as an elementary school between 1892-1976, serving predominantly Latino students. The building has been the county’s Health and Human Services Department headquarters for years, but the county is planning to move out by 2021. The city has long expressed a keen interest in purchasing and preserving the building but has not been able to reach an agreement with the county.

The city’s offer of $10 million falls well short of the most recent property appraisal of $53 million. That appraisal came before the county placed restrictions over what could be done with the property, which one commissioner said would hurt the appraised value. Eckhardt said even with the restrictions, the city’s bid for $10 million falls well short.

The city’s offer came via email from City Manager Spencer Cronk. Cronk said the city would use hotel tax revenue to make the purchase and that the city has already identified funding sources to turn the structure into a museum.

“The City welcomes this opportunity to partner with the County on preserving this important property for the benefit of the public and in alignment with community comments,” Cronk wrote. “The Palm School property represents an inspirational and essential piece of our shared community, and the public’s desire to find a future use of the property that both maintains public ownership and preserves its historic significance and cultural values has been made clear.”

Not only did the city’s offer come in at less than 20% of the appraised value—it also failed to mention any of the other bargaining chips the county has regularly and publicly expressed interest in. Over the past several months, the county has offered the Palm School in exchange for the city-owned Travis County Expo Center. It has also asked the city to consider including the city-owned HealthSouth property at 1215 Red River St. as well as allowing the county to begin collecting revenue from a 2% hotel tax—the city currently owns all the available local hotel tax revenue.

In a November letter to Cronk, Eckhardt said the county would “seriously consider” "any counteroffers proffered by the City for the sale of Expo or the purchase of Palm as linked or as separate transactions."

County spokesperson Hector Nieto said the county is still mulling the offer from the city, with no timeline on when the county could respond.


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