Downtown’s historic Palm School, the long and storied past of which often simmers with the same racial tensions providing the subtext for much of the history of Austin’s growth, deserves to be preserved. That basic point is clear to seemingly everyone with skin in the game regarding the future of the building and its site, the most important of which is its owner, Travis County.
It’s also pretty clear that the Palm School’s best use probably isn’t office space — right now, it’s occupied by the county’s Health and Human Services and Veteran Services departments, both of which are scheduled to relocate to new offices by 2020. So what’s next? Last summer, the county hired firms Antenora Architects, Limbacher & Godfrey, and McCann Adams Studio to produce a comprehensive report on the historic structure, which covers the history of the building, its current structural state, and possibilities for reuse and redevelopment at the location.
The completed report, presented at a meeting of the county’s commissioners yesterday, lays down four design recommendations:
- Since the school building was originally built in 1892, with new wings and other modifications added from 1910 to 1949, the report suggests keeping only the parts of the school built until 1924, removing newer additions and optimizing its appearance towards Cesar Chavez Street.
- It suggests limiting any new development at the property to the north side, in order to preserve the view of the building’s facade from Cesar Chavez Street.
- To ensure good connectivity between the school building and its neighboring Palm Park, which may also soon be redeveloped, the report recommends maintaining a “direct relationship” between the two — potentially influencing the design of trail connections and public space in any new development.
- Finally, the report encourages any development’s parking component to remain below-grade as much as possible — too much parking, the architects fear, could contribute to any possible development diminishing the school’s historic value.
As far as striking a balance between preservation and development, these seem like pretty reasonable guidelines. The authors of the report go on to describe three hypothetical design scenarios for developments at the Palm School, all of which imagine new buildings separate from the historic structure itself — but there’s obviously no guarantee a project at this site will look anything like what’s described here. After all, the county hasn’t even reached a stage where they’re ready to sell the property to an interested developer.
Concept 1: Mid-Rise A
This design preserves the most of the Palm School building, retaining everything up to the secondary wing built in 1948. It shows construction wrapped around the west and north sides of the property, comprised of a 4-story and 7-story section. According to the architects, this space could allow for a number of uses, and likely more than one, including cultural, nonprofit, office, and possibly even residential space.
It would require an estimated 240 parking spaces, and following the earlier design rules, its garage would be built at least partially underground. In all, the project would offer 145,000 square feet of new space in addition to the restored Palm School building, which in this configuration would contain 36,800 square feet.
Concept 2: Mid-Rise B
In this configuration, the original 1892-1924 structure of the school is preserved, with the newer wings removed. The scale of the mid-rise addition is increased to occupy both corners of the block’s northern half, though the opening to Palm Park is retained in keeping with the design guidelines established earlier.
The percentage of the structure that rises to seven stories versus four stories in height is increased in comparison to the earlier design, and though its usage again integrates residential, cultural, and commercial space, its focus on multifamily housing is increased, with 145 potential units totaling 159,500 square feet of residential space. This design brings the size of the Palm School down to 21,000 square feet, and would require 180 parking spaces in a similar partially-subterranean layout as the previous design concept.
Concept 3: Residential Point Tower
This design brings the highest density to the site, while still retaining the 1892-1924 Palm School structure. It proposes a 27-story residential tower along the I-35 frontage road, a placement the architects attribute to a desire to avoid being “overwhelmed” by the Fairmont Austin next door. That’s also why this layout puts a lower, seven-story building between the hotel and the residential tower on the lot’s northwest corner.
The tower option could create 320 housing units within roughly 360,000 square feet of total development, and also includes an additional 20,000 square feet of cultural and commercial space, along with the 21,000 square feet contained within the preserved Palm School.
County commissioners seemed friendly to the options presented here, but raised concerns about the necessity of comprehensive preservation of the Palm School building, along with the possibility of an affordable housing component included in the redevelopment. It’s unclear at this time what the function of the preserved historic building will be, but it could presumably be used for cultural purposes such as a museum, event venue, or office space for local nonprofits.
In any case, the county can use various deed restrictions to require the property’s buyer to fulfill certain conditions for preservation, upkeep, and possibly even the allotment of a percentage of affordable units in a potential residential project. These hypotheticals were discussed at yesterday’s meeting, but the commissioners say they must first seek considerable public input on any strategy for the site’s development before moving forward.
All of these designs, by the way, are contingent upon the property’s proposed rezoning, from Commercial Services to Central Business District – Historic, but I doubt the county’s going to have a hard time getting that done.
The name of this website being what it is, you can probably tell what option I’d prefer to see. A residential tower design for the space could maximize density and profitability for a potential developer, which also increases the chances of high-quality cultural activation — not to mention that if that developer is required by the terms of the property’s sale to provide a certain percentage of affordable units, a higher-density project will create more affordable units overall.
Still, all of these possibilities have promise, and they’re good examples of how to successfully adapt historic properties with a variety of new uses while still preserving their original design — so no matter what gets built, I’m looking forward to seeing what’s next for the Palm School.
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