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East Austin neighbors prepared to battle over former Negro School property rezoning

Planning Commission votes against developer’s request

An old, farm-type building with a big field in front of it
The former Montopolis Negro School site and building

A battle over the redevelopment of East Austin land and a building that once housed the Montopolis Negro School gained steam Tuesday, according reports in the The Austin Chronicle and The Austin Monitor Thursday.

Both news outlets reported that Austin’s Planning Commission voted at its Tuesday night meeting to deny a zoning change for the site—as well as, according to Chronicle Co-Editor and Co-Publisher Nick Barbaro’s “Public Notice” column—to grant historic zoning to the property.

While the matter must ultimately be decided by the City Council, it’s a major development in a clash that started when KEEP Investment Group/Real Estate’s Austin Stowell, who purchased the 1.8-acre tract at 500 Montopolis Drive in 2015, obtained a demolition permit for the building that once housed the school.

The property is the former site—and possibly the only one with a remaining structure—of one of the 42 “country schools” built in the segregated county for African-American children from 1935 to 1962.

In short order, neighbors and activists joined members of the Montopolis Neighborhood Association and Montopolis Neighborhood Plan Contact Team to protest the development. Longtime East and South Austin activist and founding president of the Montopolis Neighborhood Association Fred L. McGhee wrote an open letter to Austin Mayor Steve Adler, calling the property “one of the most important African-American historic sites in the city” and its development development an “act of institutional racism.”

His letter also clarified a the convoluted history of how the property, originally donated for a new school to be built, ended up as a Church of Christ in 1967 and therefore available for sale decades later.

Stowell told Curbed Austin in December 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.

According to McGhee, meanwhile, “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 originally obtained the demolition permit because the Historic Landmark Commission failed to grant historic zoning to the property (primarily due to voting rules that would have required a unanimous vote in favor by the members present—the vote was 7-1 in favor of the the zoning).

The Travis County Commissioners Court, while it has no jurisdiction over the matter, weighed in on the issue as well.

While the Planning Commission’s recommendation against Stowell’s request to change the zoning to mixed-use, general retail (which seems to contradict somewhat the developer’s earlier statement that he would develop single-family homes on the property) will now move to consideration at City Council, Barbaro reported that a solution could lie in a “city buyout plan [that] is being dangled as a possible side benefit of some form of the mayor's ‘Downtown Puzzle’ plan.”

Rezoning denial could mean east side showdown [Austin Monitor]

Public Notice: The Negro School [AC]