Travis County commissioners approve restrictions on any future use of Palm School site

The Palm School served a predominately Latino student population downtown for decades as an elementary school.

The Palm School served a predominately Latino student population downtown for decades as an elementary school.

Travis County commissioners and Austin City Council members agree the property that used to house the Palm School should be preserved, but they have yet to agree on how exactly they will achieve that goal.

The county owns the Palm School building and had been using the former elementary school that served a predominantly Latino population as an office space for the Travis County Health and Human Services Department. That office will move to Airport Boulevard in 2021. The city, meanwhile, owns the adjacent Palm Park.

Over the last year, county staff have been going through a process to draft a recommendation for the future of the Palm School building and to hear community members' thoughts about their preferences for the future of the building. According to a community survey presented to county commissioners June 4, nearly 90% of respondents find it “extremely important” that any potential new construction at the site preserves the Palm School’s historic core.

The future of the site is still uncertain, but commissioners took a step in the process June 4 by approving a set of restrictive covenants––essentially guidelines for future use, no matter who ultimately owns the property.

Those covenants include requirements to pursue national and state historic landmark designations for the Palm School, to complete restoration work before any new construction can take place and an obligation to keep up with ongoing maintenance of the building.

The restrictive covenants also require 80% of the property’s occupiable space be dedicated to cultural heritage or community uses while maintaining that the primary area must be available and open to the public.

“There has to be a commitment to preserve Palm for its cultural value and for the future, to not erase the cultural significance of that site,” Precinct 4 Commissioner Margaret Gomez said.

On May 23, Austin City Council approved a resolution urging Travis County to not sell the Palm School or the surrounding site and directing City Manager Spencer Cronk to negotiate “in earnest” with Travis County on future options for continued public ownership.

District 9 Council Member Kathie Tovo told commissioners June 4 she shared the public sentiment to have the Palm School be “a place that is 100% used for cultural and historical programming.”

Concerns did emerge on the commissioners court dais about how exactly the site will be preserved.

Gomez said she did not support any future sale of the property, while Precinct 2 Commissioner Brigid Shea said she had concerns about the county’s ability to maintain the site given the recent property tax revenue caps passed by the Texas Legislature. Instead, Shea suggested the city pay to maintain the site using hotel occupancy tax funds.

“We won’t have the money to maintain any kind of building there. We won’t have the money to fix it up. We won’t have the money to program it, so I would not want to get us in a position through a partnership where we would be expected to put any money in,” Shea said.

Eckhardt reminded commissioners that the process is not over, and the county still has about two years until county staff relocates out of the building to the new office.

“This is a journey. We’ve got time,” Eckhardt said.

City and county leadership will meet the week of June 17 to continue discussions about how each could continue working to preserve the site.