For Georgia Steen, a former student of the Montopolis Negro School, preserving the schoolhouse’s future means not only saving a historical site but also bringing back the place that once served as the nucleus of Southeast Austin’s African-American community.
“Many of the former students who attended still currently live in Montopolis,” Steen said at Thursday’s Austin City Council meeting, where members unanimously voted to “negotiate acquisition” of the historic school. The move signals a step forward for community advocates who for months have rallied for the preservation of the empty schoolhouse.
Mayor Steve Adler remarked on the importance of honoring not only history but its people. The Montopolis Negro School is one of the last of the 42 institutions that educated African-American children when Austin schools refused to do so. Some Austin schools began integrating in the mid- to late 1950s, but the Austin school board did not lift the final barriers to integration until years later.
City staffers will now prepare a plan to restore the school “as a historic asset and museum that would attract tourists and convention delegates,” according to the resolution.
If the city completes the purchase, it will likely use hotel taxes that were recently diverted from the Austin Convention Center and Visit Austin operations to historic preservation projects.
In 2015, the property was purchased by Austin Stowell of KEEP Investment Group/Real Estate. He planned to redevelop the site, he has said, without knowing of its historical significance. Since then he has requested rezoning the property to build a mixed-use project on a portion of the land while keeping the schoolhouse and creating a 25-foot buffer around it.
Several Austinites at the council meeting expressed concern about whether the city could negotiate a fair price with the owner, citing Stowell’s reluctance to share an asking price with Montopolis neighborhood leaders.
Susana Almanza, chairwoman of the Montopolis Neighborhood Plan Contact Team, said Stowell has not been a friend to the neighborhood. She suggested the negotiations also include a condition where Stowell would have to give a donation back to the community.
“We will work our best to make sure we get a fair return on our money,” said Council Member Sabino “Pio” Renteria at the meeting. The schoolhouse at 500 Montopolis Drive sits in his Southeast Austin district.
Stowell said he looks forward to working with city staffers as well as the community as they move forward with the process. City staff will return to council with a status of the negotiation for approval.
Fred McGhee, author of the book “Austin’s Montopolis Neighborhood,” said he one day hopes his children will be able to attend a community program at the site of the historic school. “The right thing is for this (site) to be preserved as a park and museum.”
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In other news out of the City Council meeting Thursday:
Jail pet programs approved: Council members gave their blessing to a pair of pilot programs that would allow selected inmates to train and socialize a handful of dogs and cats from the Austin Animal Center.
Firefighters contract passed: The collective bargaining agreement between the city and the Austin Firefighters Association includes revisions aimed at reining in the Fire Department’s overtime costs.
Get the moving van: The council approved a seven-year, $10.9 million lease for office space at 5202 East Ben White Blvd. The office will provide room for some of the Development Services workers currently at the overcrowded One Texas Center, while also creating one consolidated office for Austin Energy’s customer service employees.