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Developers, neighbors battle over former Montopolis school ground

Protesters fear erasure of history, want park and preservation

barn-like building surrounded by trees
Former schoolhouse in Montopolis
via FredMcGhee.com

Neighbors and activists joined members of the Montopolis Neighborhood Association and Montopolis Neighborhood Plan Contact Team Friday to protest development that they fear will include demolition of a building that was the Montopolis Negro School during the city’s period of segregation, the Austin American-Statesman reported Friday.

The building sits on a 1.8-acre tract at 500 Montopolis Drive, which was purchased by KEEP Investment Group/Real Estate’s Austin Stowell last year. Stowell told the Statesman he does not intend to demolish the structure, though he did confirm to Curbed Austin via telephone on Monday that he obtained a demolition permit on Friday.

Stowell said his reason for doing so has to do with moving the project through the city development process more quickly—particularly when it comes to being permitted to move the building. It would allow it to be moved on the site, he said, adding that it could be “repurposed in a 100 different ways.”

Longtime East and South Austin activist and founding president of the Montopolis Neighborhood Association (among many other roles he has held) Fred L. McGhee wrote an open letter to Austin Mayor Steve Adler on his blog Wednesday, calling the development an “act of institutional racism.”

Calling the property “one of the most important African-American historic sites in the city” and the Montopolis Negro School “an important artifact of segregated education in Austin and Travis County.” His letter provides a history of the combination of actions that led to its ending up as a Church of Christ in 1967.

According to the Statesman, the building was one of the county’s 42 schools for African-American children from 1935 to 1962 and is one of few remaining structures used for that purpose in the county.

Stowell told Curbed Austin that, because title reports don’t always include complete deed information, he did not know what the building had been used for prior to the 1960s and that, once he was informed of its history, he changed his focus from demolishing the building to moving it and restoring it.

He also said he still intends to develop the lot with single-family homes, using a new city infill tool that allows for smaller limits on “cottage” lot and home sizes, one of the tools that cities and developers can use to keep housing costs down. After meeting with District 3 Councilmember Sabino “Pío” Renteria, he added, he believes he can work with the council to “alter existing entitlements to make moving and working with the structure feasible.”

According to McGhee, “the community believes that this property should be historically preserved in situ and the area turned into a park similar to other parks with buildings in our existing parks system.

While Stowell expresses a desire to work with the neighborhood and other involved parties, he’s not interested in donating the property to be turned into parkland. “That’s not going to happen,” he said.

Protesters rally in support of preserving historic Montopolis school [AAS]

An Open Letter to Austin Mayor Steve Adler [FredMcGhee.com]