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Historic Palm School preservation gets thumbs-up from county

Leaders are still undecided about what to do with the valuable property surrounding Downtown building

The Palm School building
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The Travis County Commissioners Court voted Tuesday to take measures to protect the historic Palm School building, the Austin American-Statesman reported Wednesday, approving deed restrictions to ensure its ongoing existence and maintenance.

Located on the corner of East Cesar Chavez Street and the I-35 frontage road about a block from the Austin Convention Center, the building has been part of recently reinvigorated Austin City Council conversations about rebuilding the convention center. The city is currently considering a plan that calls for the preservation of the Palm School and incorporation of the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, the Rainey Street historic district, and Waller Creek Park into the renovation.

Opened in 1892, the Palm School served a primarily Latino elementary-aged students for 84 years prior to its closure in 1976. County health services have occupied the building for the past several years but plan to move its offices there by late 2021.

Activists have been urging the county since 2016 to preserve the former elementary school, which opened in 1892 and served East Austin, especially Latino students, for 84 years. The site, at the intersection of Cesar Chavez Street and Interstate 35, has housed county health services in recent years. The county plans to move those offices by late 2021.

The Commissioners Court vote Tuesday approves in principle restrictive covenants proposed by staff members based on the staff’s map, created after a community survey. An area on the southern part of the property, where the map shows the footprint of the original school, is the area marked for preservation.

A strip of land that connects the building to the Waller Creek trail would also be preserved, while 40 percent of the property could be developed for other purposes. The restrictive covenants also dictate that the school be restored within three years and that no new construction can occur until restoration is completed. In addition, they require the preservation of the building in perpetuity and its designation as a state historic landmark if approved.

While the city of Austin has expressed interest in purchasing the Palm School property (and even suggested that the county donate it for use as a public park), county commissioners have not decided how they’ll proceed in dealing with the extremely valuable property around the school building. Staff members at the meeting outlined options including listing the site for sale with the deed restrictions, negotiating a transfer of the land to the city, or start the process to decide how the site will figure into the development and change in southeastern downtown. County leaders have also noted that private development of the valuable land could fund the school’s restoration and county health programs.