After much debate over redevelopment, Austin City Council approved a resolution authorizing the city to negotiate the purchase of the Montopolis Negro School in East Austin. The city manager will now work to develop a plan for restoring and maintaining the segregation-era school as a museum.
At the height of segregation, there were 42 schools for black children throughout Travis County; the Montopolis school is one of the few still standing. The school sits vacant in a largely empty field in East Austin.
The property’s owner, Austin Stowell, had originally planned to tear down the building and build a community of single-family homes. The move alarmed neighborhood preservationists and residents who attended the school.
Activists began to speak up in December, right after the city’s Historic Landmark Commission failed to give the property a historic designation. Stowell, who says he wasn’t aware of the property's historical significance when he bought it, has since put his plans on hold.
The Austin City Council voted Thursday to work out a deal to buy the site from him.
“I don’t foresee, if the city purchased it, that it would be anything other than both a historic building and public parkland,” Stowell said.
To neighborhood preservationists, the building is an important relic of Austin’s segregated past.
Fred McGhee, author of Austin’s Montopolis Neighborhood, has been a prominent voice in the preservation efforts. He said he feels it’s important to preserve the entire site, not just the building.
“We wanted this iconic piece of our neighborhoods, of our community’s heritage, properly preserved, respected as a park and a museum,” McGhee said.
Council Member Pio Renteria, whose district includes the Montopolis school site, said the best option is for the city to buy it.
“When we were doing the budget session, discussion came about [of] using the hotel occupancy tax to buy or to preserve some of our older sites,” he said.
Austin could pay for the purchase using money from the hotel tax. Just last month, City Council voted to direct more money from the tax revenue to historic preservation efforts.
Renteria said the case has shed light on potential changes to the Historic Landmark Commission. Right now, many historic zoning cases require a vote of two-thirds of the commission. The Montopolis school fell just short of meeting that mark. Renteria wants to change the requirement to a simple majority vote, reducing one of the hurdles to preserving historic properties.
This post has been updated to reflect the City Council's vote.