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Travillion steps up to the plate for Montopolis Negro School compromise

Monday, January 9, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

Barely an hour after taking his ceremonial oath of office at his first Travis County Commissioners Court meeting, Commissioner Jeff Travillion took on a big special assignment.

At the request of County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, Travillion committed to brokering a compromise between the owner of the Montopolis Negro School building in Southeast Austin and neighborhood activists who want to see the structure preserved.

“If you lived here for a long time, you see bits and pieces of your history go away,” Travillion told the owner, Austin Stowell, who showed up to share with the court his side of the story. He told Eckhardt that he would “love to take the lead on” her proposal to bring both sides to the negotiating table to hammer out a solution.

It was the second time in less than a month in which the court discussed the controversy swirling around Stowell’s proposal to redevelop the property. In December, those pushing for preservation – including historian Fred McGhee and Montopolis Neighborhood Association president Susana Almanza – asked the court to urge the city of Austin to protect the school building and convert it into a museum.

Stowell bought the property on which the building sits in March 2014 in order to build 14 single-family homes on the site. He originally believed the structure was an abandoned barn and applied for a demolition permit. On Tuesday, he told the court that he changed his mind about demolishing the building after its complete history came to light.

The building was originally placed on the site – which was then owned by the county – in the 1930s and used as a school for black students during the days of segregation. During the 1960s, the Austin Independent School District shut the school down, and the building was converted into a church.

To give Travillion time to mediate a compromise between Stowell and the activists, Eckhardt decided on Tuesday to postpone a vote on a resolution that would call on City Council to initiate historic zoning on the site. The court could also opt to send a letter to Council asking to delay a public hearing on Stowell’s development plans that is scheduled for the Planning Commission this coming Tuesday.

Stowell warned that continued delays on his project could have adverse consequences.

“If we can’t figure out a plan or what to do with it in a two-year period, I’m left with no other choice than to demolish the church, which is not a position I want to be backed into,” he said. “Delays are a negative in every sense of the word at this point.”

According to Tuesday’s Planning Commission agenda, city staff have recommended a postponement of the public hearing until Feb. 28.

Photo by Fred McGhee.

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