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Controversy swirls over Montopolis historic school site eyed for development

Friday, June 16, 2017 by Chad Swiatecki

The city’s Community Development Commission weighed in on the effort to stop a contentious development project proposed for a historic piece of property in East Austin.

At Tuesday’s meeting the development commission voted 13-0 to ask the city to halt any work to demolish a historic school building located on Montopolis Drive just south of U.S. Hwy 183. The resolution also asked for the 1.8-acre property to be designated as a historic area and for allocation of funds to establish a community park and museum dedicated to the Montopolis area’s role in local African-American history.

At the heart of the issue is a project proposed by developer Austin Stowell, who purchased the property in 2015 without knowing that an abandoned structure there is a former school for African-American students that dates back to the 1930s. The site was also once the home of St. Edward’s Baptist Church, which was demolished in 1990.

Stowell, who has completed multiple successful residential projects in Austin, had planned to demolish the school to build single-family houses there. He currently holds a demolition permit for the property, but has floated several other possible uses that involve either rehabbing or moving the school building.

In an attempt to work with Stowell and prevent the demolition, the city’s Planning and Zoning Department has requested a rezoning of the property to either mixed use or commercial, which Stowell said would make the project economically feasible and cover his costs to rehab the school building, which he estimates at around $600,000.

This week the city scheduled a public hearing on the rezoning for June 28, though Stowell told the Austin Monitor on Thursday that he doesn’t expect the application to make it onto a meeting agenda until August or September. He has also said that the cooperation of City Council members Pio Renteria and Ora Houston in finding a suitable plan for the site suggests that there is enough community support to move forward.

Stowell said via email he hopes the city’s efforts will allow him to keep the school on the site.

“Though we are currently in possession of a demolition permit,” he said, “we look forward to working with the city to rezone the site and find an adaptive reuse of the former school as an alternative to demolition.”

Tuesday’s vote from the advisory board was the latest friction point in the matter between Stowell and Commissioner Fred McGhee, who is also a well-documented historian and scholar of the Montopolis area’s roots in local African-American history.

McGhee said the vote was an attempt to get the city to step in to stop Stowell’s project entirely since the Historic Landmark Commission didn’t give the property a historic designation at a meeting in November.

Tracing the site’s history back to the city’s seizure of parts of the property using eminent domain in 1970, McGhee said it’s time for the city to commit resources to return the whole parcel to the community.

“They can’t make this (project) happen unless they re-plat the area to facilitate the development,” he said. “Right now the city is playing poker chips with land that it stole in the first place.”

McGhee, who lives in the Montopolis neighborhood near the school and former church, said he plans to stay involved and rallying opposition against Stowell’s development.

“If it goes to Planning Commission and they continue to grant the zoning this developer wants, we’ll engage in civil disobedience,” he said. “There will be protests and more for the exposure of an unforgivable wrong committed on this property.”

Photo by Fred McGhee.

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