I’ve been thinking about the fate of the Palm School, and cannot shake the feeling that preservation-at-all-costs is as dangerous to Austin’s future as development-at-all-costs.
Late last year, downtown’s representative on the Commissioners Court, Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, tapped the brakes on an effort to preserve Palm School, a 123-year-old building at E. Cesar Chavez Street and I35.
The Palm School is no longer a school. It’s currently home to the county’s Health and Human Services and Veteran Services offices, but plans are for those workers to move to a new facility set to be built on Airport Boulevard.
Few of my fellow urbanists are keen to give extremely valuable CBD land over to low-intensity uses that don’t pay into local property tax rolls, nor add to the vibrancy of the city. Travis County misread public sentiment and got burned last year when it failed to turn prime downtown real estate into a civil courthouse bunker.
The County appears to be again stumbling into a very similar trap. This time it’s an effort to preserve the Palm School, and it has the backing of at least two members of Austin City Council.
Parts of the building may claim roots back 123 years, but the building is fugly from all angles, a fact that few would dispute. Across the street from an IHOP, the Palm School presents a gateway into downtown that is … uninspiring. The facade hardly suggests the decent taste of a building built in 1892. That’s because a private owner who bought Palm School in the 1970s gave it the malaise-era municipal design treatment.
I respect that there are Austinites with a warm-and-fuzzy connection to the Palm School. I get that preservation efforts need zealotry to be effective, or else nothing would be preserved; however, this is one of those subject properties where preservation is at direct odds with the scarce geography where we’ve collectively agreed to place density.
Downtown Austin’s CBD is one of the few areas where builders and planners are given a relatively free hand to scale projects in a way that maximizes the compact and connected ideals of urban living. It is possible to simultaneously be a preservationist and an urbanist, and the discussion of preserving the Palm School should not be willfully blind to the surging demands of growth in the central city.