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Despite higher valuation, Montopolis School property appears headed to court

Friday, January 25, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

The city’s purchase offer via eminent domain for the Montopolis Negro School property appears to be headed to court.

On Tuesday a three-member Special Commissioners Hearing agreed on a value of $464,000 for the schoolhouse portion of the Southeast Austin property purchased in 2015 by developer Austin Stowell, who had planned to build a mix of residential and commercial buildings there. Those plans sparked protests from neighbors over the expected demolition of the one-room schoolhouse, which was created for the area’s black students and used for roughly 30 years, ending in the 1960s. In the years since, a series of purchase offers and legal actions have unfolded between Stowell and the city, which controlled the property prior to the 2015 sale.

Those actions included an approval last summer for the legal department to begin eminent domain actions to purchase the schoolhouse from Stowell, with the purchase price at that time calculated at $362,000. Tuesday’s hearing was set to hear the results of a new appraisal of the property, after which Stowell told Spectrum News he would challenge the new valuation in district court in a move to increase the purchase price.

Stowell has previously said he won’t fight the eminent domain action because doing so would be too costly.

Through a spokesperson, the city said: “The city opted to take the property by eminent domain after the owner refused all our offers to buy the land. At (Tuesday’s) hearing the Special Commissioners agreed with the city’s assessment of what constituted a fair price for the property and we expect to take possession next month. The Montopolis School was an important center of community life for the Montopolis community and the city intends to preserve the structure and open it as a museum. The details of the development and management of the site have yet to be determined.”

Community activists and city leaders have agreed to use Hotel Occupancy Tax revenue to preserve the schoolhouse building and rehabilitate it into a museum dedicated to the Montopolis area’s importance to Austin’s African-American heritage.

The Parks and Recreation Department estimated the museum would cost $5.7 million to renovate and open, with an annual operating cost of $193,000.

Fred McGhee, one of the leaders of the effort to preserve and renovate the schoolhouse, said the commission’s evaluation shows the city wants to move forward with taking ownership and turning the deteriorated structure into a community asset.

“We left there feeling good and agreeing with the city’s finding because the appraiser put a fair value on the property using two different methods to evaluate it,” he said. “We had heard that Mr. Stowell wasn’t planning on challenging this … I think he’s going to have a hard time finding a district judge who will let him make $1 million on that property, taking that money from taxpayers.”

McGhee said he belongs to two community organizations – including the Montopolis Community Development Corporation – that plan to work with the city on converting the schoolhouse into a museum. He said there are other revitalization efforts underway by those groups, with the Negro School property as the centerpiece.

“This happened because of compensatory justice, with the city itself committing an egregious use of eminent domain on that property in 1987, destroying St. Edward’s Missionary Baptist Church to build a road that was never built,” he said.

“This is an important piece for the fight of gentrification in Austin. The community has not been able to beat back the forces causing gentrification, but the unique history of this property is special, and because of that City Council saw that they needed to do something about it.”

Photo by Fred McGhee.

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