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Another Montopolis Negro School clash at Travis County

Wednesday, July 12, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

Opponents of a plan to redevelop a chunk of land in Southeast Austin upon which sits a former segregation-era school for African-Americans were handed a pair of setbacks on Tuesday.

After a heated discussion, the Travis County Commissioners Court declined to take action on a resolution that would have expressed support for the preservation of the Montopolis Negro School building and the surrounding land.

Later in the evening, the Urban Transportation Commission voted 9-0 to advance property owner Austin Stowell’s plan to convert existing right of way across the land into a pedestrian and bicycle path. The decision is the first step in a process to change the city’s plans to build a street connection across the land that would connect Montopolis Drive to Kemp Street.

The right of way vacation would allow Stowell to move forward with his plans to rezone the section of the property on which the former school building sits.

The commission’s decision came after a brief staff introduction and no discussion by the commissioners. Stowell was present but did not speak in favor of the item and no opponents showed up to challenge it.

That placid scene contrasted sharply with how things unfolded at Commissioners Court hours earlier. Montopolis resident and historian Fred McGhee led a squad of neighbors who encouraged the court to pass the resolution that McGhee had helped to draft. The tone of the discussion grew testy at times and ended with inaction, the third time since December that McGhee failed to win the court’s unified support for his cause.

Similar to the one he brought late last year, McGhee’s resolution would have had the court call on the city of Austin to preserve the building and save the land around it for use as a community park. While Stowell has committed to keeping the building intact, he plans to add up to 11 single-family homes on the property, as well as other structures closer to it.

“There will be some light development around the site because the structure itself cannot fund its own renovation,” Stowell explained. “But we think that we have mixed use of office and general retail space on-site that could make the site a feasible site in order to renovate the structure.”

Despite having “worked in earnest” with Mayor Steve Adler, Council Member Ora Houston and Council Member Pio Renteria to move forward on the site, Stowell accused “certain community members” of endeavoring “to find a way to undermine our negotiations for their own personal preferences of what they would like to see done on the site, or not done in this case.”

Before allowing McGhee and his allies to speak, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt warned that their chances of convincing the court to pass the resolution were shaky at best.

“We actually don’t govern by resolution and are unlikely to communicate our wishes, intentions or views to the City Council through resolution,” Eckhardt declared.

In his remarks, McGhee accused Stowell of resorting to personal attacks.

“I also am disappointed in his mischaracterizations, of which there are many, but I don’t have time to go through a list and correct many of the things that he said that were false,” McGhee added. He also insisted on the county’s relevance in the discussion since it owned the land up until 1952 when the city annexed the neighborhood.

McGhee then accused Stowell of not understanding part of his resolution.

“This is baseline stuff that an undergraduate learns in historic preservation class,” he insisted.

“That’s the kind of personal attack that is not useful here,” Eckhardt told him.

“I’m sorry,” replied McGhee. “I’m from the East Coast where feelings don’t get hurt easily. I know I’m in Texas now where people really like to be more polite.”

Later, McGhee criticized Stowell for talking to city officials while, according to him, declining to sit down with neighborhood stakeholders.

“So what we are doing is just exercising our democratic rights as citizens of our city and county to oppose unwanted development,” he concluded. “Something of which there is a distinguished tradition in our fine city.”

McGhee was backed up by former Austin Neighborhoods Council President David King as well as Georgia Steen, who attended the school before it closed down in 1962 and eventually converted into a church five years later.

Another Montopolis resident also lent her voice.

“As we’ve built a new structure in the neighborhood, we feel like we’ve been embraced by this entire community and all of our neighbors,” Annie Gunn told the court. “And in our position, we would like to see the wishes of our neighbors be honored.”

Commissioner Margaret Gómez, in whose Precinct 4 the property is located, called the question a “painful issue to face” and an unquestionable example of gentrification at work. She urged both sides to work together to find a solution.

That message was seconded by Commissioner Jeff Travillion, who had volunteered in January to help broker a compromise between the two sides.

“I respect you as civic-minded folk who care about their community, who are learning about their community,” Travillion told McGhee and his faction. “But at the same time, this young man has come in and expressed an interest to work with community. And what I’ve seen so far is that we’re talking at each other and we’re not talking to each other. And that’s going to have to change.”

After the commissioners’ comments, Eckhardt opted to forgo a vote on the resolution but offered the court’s services as a “helpmate” in the ongoing discussions.

Photo by Fred McGhee.

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