Public Notice: The Negro School
Preserving whose historical legacy?
Inspiring and emotional moments at the Planning Commission late Tuesday, as commissioners voted 12-0-1 to deny a zoning change for the former Montopolis Negro School, and to zone the entire property on which it sits historic. That's only a recommendation, and it will send the matter up to City Council, but it's a big step in preserving what locals vehemently claim is a part of their heritage: one of the few (perhaps only) remaining Negro "country schools" that predominated throughout Texas for most of a century.
How it got to this point is a tortured story: After an earlier school was flooded out in 1935, Travis County refused to replace it, so St. Edward's Baptist Church, the oldest African-American Baptist church in the county, donated the land for a new school. After the area was annexed into the City of Austin and AISD, the district sold it off in the Sixties, and the building became a church until a few years ago. Local Realtor® Austin Stowell of KEEP Investment Group bought the property in 2015, and though he says he doesn't plan to tear the structure down now that he knows its history, he did oppose a historic designation, and acquired a demolition permit on it in December, and is now seeking to change the zoning to mixed-use, general retail.
So on Tuesday evening, after a lot of public testimony – by turns impassioned and scholarly – and some back-and-forth about possible compromises, Planning Commissioner Chito Vela cut to the chase sometime after 10pm with the motion to deny, and PC Trinity White followed with the emotional clincher: "I can completely appreciate the staff's attempt to try and find a way to remedy the situation that we're in, and I really appreciate our fellow commissioners trying to find a way to make a compromise on this, and I often try to help with compromises, and look for opportunities to find a way for the developer and the neighborhood to find a win-win. However, I feel like we're being held hostage in this case, and I think that there are a number of different wrongs that were made in different, various boards and commissions, and conversations across the whole city that have led us to this situation. I think that the issuing of the demo permit was an awful mistake; I think the recommendation for the right-of-way was a problem; I think the fact that Travis County wouldn't replace the original school in 1935, so that we're having a conversation about this school on this property right now is a huge problem; and I think that I'm going to read from this [prepared statement]: I really don't feel like we need to perpetuate this systemic institutional racism of the past. I think that 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, and I will be voting for historic designation for this entire site, with SF-3, because our community has a chance to take this one to the streets."
It turned out that White had hit a chord with her fellow commissioners. Angela De Hoyos Hart's reply that: "I have never been more proud to be a part of this commission," was reiterated by several other commissioners. Nor was White the only one – on this generally somewhat sober and deliberative panel – who promised to stand with neighbors including historian Dr. Fred McGhee and the Montopolis Neighborhood Association, led by Susana Almanza, who have vowed to form a human shield if necessary to prevent the demolition.
In the end though, a "win-win" could develop after all; a city buyout plan is being dangled as a possible side benefit of some form of the mayor's "Downtown Puzzle" plan.
BTW, the demolition permit for the school was issued in December, after the Historic Landmark Commission failed to pass historic zoning in November despite a 7-1 vote for it because, as is frequently the case, there were so many commissioners missing that they barely had a quorum, and would have needed a unanimous vote to approve. That's why there's currently a proposal pending to reduce the number of votes required to constitute a super-majority at that commission: It's simple recognition that this volunteer citizen commission is often unable to do their job, even on a case like this – leading to what Planning Dept. lead staffer Jerry Rusthoven referred to as a "pocket veto."
After that and some other contentious cases, PC arrived at their discussion of CodeNEXT at 12:50am. There's little to talk about with the second draft about to come out Friday (see "Which Way to CodeNEXT?" Sept. 15), but there was one clear message reiterated by several commissioners: "Give us options." They'd like to see a few different scenarios for the mapping, with indications of where things can be tweaked and adjusted, and what the results of those tweaks would be. Chito Vela: "The range of options is critical." Chair Stephen Oliver: "You understand the cause and effect of these various tools … We've been left without that tool. … We're just a passenger in this car, and being told, 'That's where we're going.'"