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Rezoning denial could mean east side showdown

Thursday, September 14, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

Planning commissioners took a united stand Tuesday night by voting to deny a rezoning application for an east side property that contains the former Montopolis Negro School.

The case has drawn controversy as it has moved through other city commissions, thanks in large part to the strong opposition of community members. Property owner Austin Stowell has applied for the property to be rezoned from single family to community commercial, with historic zoning granted for the school structure and a surrounding 25-foot buffer. But historian and Montopolis resident Fred McGhee said at the meeting that the entire 2-acre property, not just the building, was one of the most historic African-American sites in Austin.

A former student of the school, Clifton Griffin, described his memory of the land growing up. “There used to be numerous Live Oak trees, and there were seats around those trees. In the summertime, like around the Fourth of July or the nineteenth of June, there were picnics held on that campus,” he said. “There was a rivalry (with) the Lamar school, which was also a part of the county school district in Del Valle, and (they) would play baseball there at the Montopolis school.”

Despite the resistance to the request so far, it has continued to move through the application process, with the Historic Landmark Commission recommending it for approval at the end of August. In response to its unimpeded progress, Montopolis Neighborhood Contact Team President Susana Almanza said that the community was willing to escalate their tactics if necessary.

“If (Stowell) wants a war, then I’ll bring my war weapons with me,” she said.

Jerry Rusthoven with the Planning and Zoning Department strongly cautioned the Planning Commission to not deny the request, because Stowell had acquired a demolition permit for the building that could be acted on at any time. Commissioner Jeffrey Thompson asked the owner’s agent, Amanda Swor with Drenner Group, to clarify if bulldozers would roll up tomorrow morning if the commission did not vote in a way that Stowell liked.

“He would have the right, and he does have the intent to move forward with a plan if we ended up in a position where the rezoning of the property looked doubtful,” she said.

Almanza and McGhee refuted what they perceived as a threat, claiming that neighbors would be on the lookout for any sign of demolition taking place and that the community would engage in civil disobedience to stop the destruction of the school structure.

“We’re in Texas, and standoffs are common,” McGhee said. “I’ve got my stuff ready, does he? We’ll find out I guess.”

Even with the commitment to fight from the community, Commissioner Karen McGraw made a motion to recommend the request under the condition that the part of the property the owner requested to be zoned historic would be the only part rezoned to commercial, so that any site plan for commercial development would have to acquire a certificate of appropriateness. Commissioner James Shieh seconded.

“If we don’t move this forward, we have a high risk of simply losing the building,” McGraw said.

Pushing back against McGraw’s logic, Commissioner Chito Vela said that even with the demolition permit, he could not imagine retail on what he thought was a historic site.

“If the community is serious about preserving the site in a way that is historically and culturally appropriate, then we are going to have to take some risks,” he said.

Vela made a substitute motion to recommend denial of the request and that the whole site be zoned single family historic. Commissioner Patricia Seeger seconded.

Commissioner Trinity White said she supported the motion.

“I really don’t feel like we need to perpetuate this systemic institutional racism of the past. I think we can set a better tone, and I will be standing with my community to send a clear message with our vote tonight. We have a responsibility as commissioners to trust our community,” she said. “I think our community has a chance to take this war to the streets.”

Other commissioners rallied behind White’s passionate testimony. Commissioner Angela De Hoyos Hart said that she would be willing to confront the bulldozers with community members if it came to that. Seeger said that she doubted the owner would act on the permit.

“I really don’t think I would want to be the person that demolished the (Montopolis Negro School),” Seeger added. “If it does happen, I think there could be consequences.”

The commission voted unanimously to pass the substitute motion. After, community members in the audience cheered, “La gente unida jamás será vencido! (The people united will never be defeated!)”

The day after the meeting, Stowell told the Austin Monitor that he looked forward to continuing to work with the city to find a “win-win” for all parties involved.

“Ultimately this has, and always has been, an issue that will need to be determined by council. The Historic Landmark Commission voted unanimously to support the plan of an adaptive reuse and rezoning of the property,” he wrote in an email. “Debate at the commission evolved to a much broader conversation on gentrification and historical racial injustice on the east side. Commissioners saw an opportunity to send a message with their vote that those issues need to be addressed by council and I appreciate their passionate discussion.”

Photo by Fred McGhee.

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