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  • Writer's pictureTalia Hill

Fairmont owner hopes to buy Palm School property for development

The owner of Austin’s Fairmont Hotel will try to buy the Travis County property next to it, alongside the historic Palm School, for a new development, adding a large business voice to the interests tussling over the future of the school’s property.

Douglas W. Manchester said in a news release Monday that he intends to use the land surrounding the Palm School for “potential commercial development.” He said he would leave the school itself in Travis County’s hands and would donate $5 million to its preservation.

Manchester is president of Manchester Texas Financial Group, which built the Fairmont, Austin’s largest hotel, in 2018, and is the son of its founder, Doug Manchester.

Preliminary discussions have begun between Travis County and Austin over the 137-year-old Palm School and its property, which houses some county offices. Austin leaders have said they would like to acquire the land to use as a park, incorporated with redevelopment of the nearby Austin Convention Center and Waller Creek trail system. Travis County leaders have voted to require that the school be preserved, but have indicated they don’t intend to give it up without getting close to market value for the land.

A first draft of the news release made the sale sound like a done deal. It primarily touted Manchester’s donation and only mentioned as an aside at the end that he “is purchasing the surrounding land.” State Rep. Sheryl Cole, who is representing Manchester as an attorney in the deal, said that language was an error and the release should have announced only an intent to submit an offer.

Cole also clarified that the $5 million announced will be donated only if Travis County accepts the deal.

Steve Drenner, who is representing the business part of the deal, did not return phone calls to say what portion of the property Manchester would like to buy, how much he will offer or what he intends to build there. Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said last week that the whole property, which sits near East Cesar Chavez Street and Interstate 35, is worth $53 million.

In the news release, Manchester said he was proud of the city and Waller Creek Conservancy for their efforts to build green space along the creek and wants the nearby school to be protected.

“We are determined not to lose the school or the priceless value of our legacy,” he said.

Word of Manchester’s impending proposal began to leak late last week, sparking dismay from some Hispanic preservation activists, who have pushed to keep the entire property in public hands. The Palm School was the second elementary school in Austin, from 1892 until 1976 primarily serving East Austin residents, including generations of Mexican-American students.

“This violates the integrity of our community’s request to preserve and protect the entire Palm School property and site for future community purposes and interferes with the proposed plans of the Waller Creek Conservancy to redevelop Palm Park,” the months-old Save Palm School coalition wrote on Facebook on Saturday. “Manchester, our cultural heritage is NOT for sale.”

On Friday, Eckhardt and County Commissioner Margaret Gómez both said they were aware of Manchester’s interest in the property but had not seen a formal proposal. Eckhardt has floated the idea of doing a request for proposals process to solicit offers from all interested parties for the property, but the county has not yet done so.

“I met with (Manchester) a couple of times, and he had some proposals,” Gómez said. “I told him where we were, as a county, and that we’re not at a point of releasing an RFP or doing anything else. ... I would prefer that it remain in public hands.”

Paul Saldaña, a local advocate and former Austin school board member, said he wanted talks between the city and county to continue and accused the Manchester group of “trying to buy their way into the deal.”

“The Palm School, it’s not only the physical structure,” he said. “Anybody in the Mexican-American community, especially if they’re native Austinites, they probably had family members go to that school. It includes Palm Park. ... We don’t have to redevelop everything.”

Cole said the advocates should consider the deal a good one.

“I’m so confused by their opposition,” she said. “I am not concerned. How can you be opposed to someone putting money forward to preserve your heritage? The county’s still going to own it.”

By Elizabeth Findell

Austin-American Statesman

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