The Austin City Council will decide this week whether to try to buy and preserve the Montopolis Negro School, potentially resolving a long-running debate over the fate of the historic property.
A proposed resolution on the council’s Thursday agenda would direct city staffers to “negotiate acquisition of the property” and prepare a plan to restore the now-empty schoolhouse “as a historic asset and museum that would attract tourists and convention delegates.”
The resolution also specifies this would be done with hotel taxes, a portion of which the council recently diverted from Austin Convention Center and Visit Austin operations to make available instead for historic preservation efforts.
“The Montopolis Negro School is, to many of us in this community, invaluable — and its cultural and historical significance, undeniable,” Council Member Sabino “Pio” Renteria said in a statement last week.
The schoolhouse at 500 Montopolis Drive, in Renteria’s Southeast Austin district, is one of the last standing of 42 institutions that educated African-American children from 1935 to 1962 when Austin’s schools refused to do so.
Austin Stowell of KEEP Investment Group/Real Estate purchased the property in 2015 with plans to redevelop the 1.8-acre site without knowing about its historic significance. Now his rezoning request seeks to develop a mixed-use project on part of the site while preserving the schoolhouse and maintaining a 25-foot buffer around it.
“Since learning that the Montopolis School was historic, I’ve made extensive efforts to preserve the structure,” Stowell said in a statement Friday. “I merely asked that I receive appropriate zoning that would subsidize my preservation efforts, which amount to foregoing development on about one-third of the site and the financial burden of the structure’s restoration. That would have been a win-win scenario in that it would have cost the city nothing, created an ongoing public revenue source, would have preserved the school, and provided much needed housing and neighborhood small scale office space.”
With the proposed council resolution, he added, “We are now faced with a situation in which taxpayers are being called upon to allocate funds to preserve the entire site. Should that effort be the will of the people and the City Council, we look forward to working through the process to see if we can come to an amicable resolution for all parties.”
Fred McGhee, an urban anthropologist and author of “Austin’s Montopolis Neighborhood” who has taken the lead on preservation efforts of the school, said Friday he was heartened by the latest developments, though he said it took months of community pressure to nudge the council in this direction.
“It is the community that deserves primary credit for what has been happening,” McGhee said via email. He criticized city staffers who recommended what he called “an unwanted and hypocritical ‘compromise’” to preserve the schoolhouse while allowing mixed-used development on the rest of the site.
If the council proceeds with negotiations, McGhee added, it should consider what is a fair price, considering the city obtained part of the property in 1987 through eminent domain for a road it never built.
“If the city pays too much money for this property,” McGhee said, “it will set a bad precedent.”
The proposed resolution for Austin to explore buying the property is sponsored by Mayor Steve Adler and cosponsored by Council Members Kathie Tovo and Ora Houston. If staffers reached a purchase agreement, it would come back to the council for approval.
Renteria noted that the council’s Sept. 28 agenda contains two other items related to Stowell’s requests to redevelop the site, but said city staffers have requested delaying those items indefinitely. So the only Montopolis school-related item the council would be acting on, Renteria said, would be the resolution on potentially buying the property.
“I look forward to implementing a community supported solution that will help us preserve this site of immeasurable historical and cultural significance,” Renteria said.