Travis commissioners appoint first Palm School advisory board member

The Travis County Commissioners Court on Tuesday nominated the first member to a three-person advisory board that will make recommendations regarding how the county’s historic Palm School property ought to be preserved and redeveloped.

Commissioner Margaret Gómez nominated Anita Quintanilla, a former student of the school, and the court approved her nomination unanimously with Commissioner Gerald Daugherty off the dais.

“She’s from the area and she went to Palm and she’s kept up with all of her classmates from Palm, so she knows everybody who attended,” Gómez said in an interview. “She just has the history from living in that area as a citizen.”

Commissioners voted to allow the Travis County Historical Commission and the Urban Land Institute in Austin each to nominate a member for the remaining two spots.

The commissioners also voted to authorize staff to solicit a new appraisal of the site at an estimated cost of $5,700.

RELATED: Architecture firm recommends preservation of Palm School historic core

The building’s fate has been a topic of fierce debate since 2015, when county leaders raised the idea of selling the school land. The plan sparked a backlash from preservationists, civic activists and other community members.

The downtown building, among its many uses, served as an elementary school in East Austin for 84 years before closing in 1976.

The building, at the corner of Interstate 35 and Cesar Chavez Street, houses the county’s Health and Human Services and Veteran Services departments, but it will be vacant by 2020, when the county plans to move those offices to its campus on Airport Boulevard.

In April, an architecture firm completed a historic review of the site and recommended that the original school building, or what it called the “historic core,” be preserved. The firm ranked later additions to the building as lower priority for preservation.

READ ALSO: Should former Palm School site be sold to developers or preserved?

At the Commissioners Court meeting last month, Mark Gilbert, the county’s strategic planning manager, first presented the idea of creating a citizen committee to inform the court’s decision on the terms of use for the site or deed restrictions. He recommended the court then move forward with a deed-restricted sale or lease.

Gilbert told commissioners Tuesday that staff envisions a board comprising of members with expertise about the site in three main areas: cultural, historic and market value.

Quintanilla, the first appointee, will bring cultural knowledge to the board given her connection to the school, East Austin and the Mexican-American community, Gilbert said.

ITS FORMER LIFE: Filling out the long history of Austin’s Swante Palm School

“For historic value, we need someone with a strong background in Austin history, architecture, historic preservation and restoration,” Gilbert said. “And for market value, we’ll need a real estate professional with development experience in the downtown area and with restrictive covenants that we’re considering.”

The board will help convene public input sessions and meetings with stakeholders, Gilbert said.

Commissioner Jeff Travillion said he wanted to ensure that historic preservation be the main priority regarding the site.

“I think it’s important to make sure that … as we start talking about attracting capital, attracting resources and other people that we make sure that the cultural context has been on the table front and center,” Travillion said.

Commissioner Brigid Shea said she wanted to make sure the two organizations recommending the other two committee members are “rigorous” in their search.

PALM’S PAST: Recalling Austin’s ample East Avenue

County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said all members will be required to fill out non-disclosure agreements and conflict of interest paperwork.

“There is such hot interest in this piece of property — we don’t want the advising on the development of the restrictive covenant to come under scrutiny as having tilted the playing field,” Eckhardt said.

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