The ongoing saga of downtown Austin’s historic Palm School site has found the next gear in the last few months, with the City of Austin announcing a new planning initiative in May for what it’s calling the Palm District — a large and sort of poorly-defined area encompassing the Palm School’s approximately 2.08-acre site, the adjacent Palm Park, the Rainey Street District, the Austin Convention Center, the Red River Cultural District, and what we’re calling the “Innovation District” along I-35 in downtown’s east end. You can see the whole thing in the diagram below:
The Palm School, which gained its historic merit as the site of primary education for the area’s Mexican American community for more than 80 years between the 1890s and 1970s, is a cultural asset in a part of town previously much more accessible to the community it served, which makes the conversation around its future reflect the same concerns about affordability and displacement gripping the city on a macro level. There’s the added difficulty that this process thus far has been essentially a flex-off between Travis County, which actually owns the school site (currently used as office space), and the City of Austin, which made an initial $10 million offer to buy the property last year — with lots of wheeling and dealing going on in between.
The status of those negotiations is currently unclear, which makes the announcement of this new planning initiative all the more interesting as a possible city effort to sway whatever’s going on behind the scenes, but what’s frustrating to us about this latest process is its diminishing of the site as a prime location for housing, especially of the affordable variety — the city’s description of the planning process includes “access to housing” as a consideration a full six bullet points into its list of possibilities, with the preservation of the site and its use as a cultural asset more obviously prioritized.
“We don’t need another condominium development here on the site of what was once Palm School . . . what we need are ways to honor and to celebrate the history of the people who have made Austin the great city it is today.”
Of course, what seems to get intentionally buried in these discussions is the fact that Travis County already laid out some possible development concepts for the site, all of which preserve the actually historic parts of the Palm School building that were heavily expanded and modified over the school’s nearly century-long timeline, but which lack the architectural merit of the original structure. The most dense of these concepts keeps the original building while adding two new structures to the site, the taller of which on the I-35 side reaches 27 floors.
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.
This approach, though now seemingly abandoned in the city’s view of the site’s future, could bring more than 300 residential units to the property without removing the historic core of the Palm School, which would permit substantial community and cultural uses keeping the site’s meaningful past alive — and assuming the terms of whatever development agreement had the right kind of teeth, ensure that some or all of the housing built here was offered at income-restricted rates, similar to the public-private partnership that brought us Mueller’s sizeable affordable component.
We don’t understand why the potential of the Palm School site to provide residences for the same members of the community it once served in its past hasn’t been more substantially underlined by the city thus far in this process, but the notion that we must choose between housing and history at the Palm School — or this newly-minted Palm District at large — is the sort of narrow-minded framing that’s dominated the conversation on growth in Austin to the city’s peril for generations. You have less than two weeks to politely mention this to the powers that be on the project’s public input page before the first virtual public meetings take place later this month.