After months of negotiation, the Austin City Council has opened the door to seizing the site of the old Montopolis Negro School in East Austin.
Council approved a measure last week to pursue eminent domain proceedings after it was unable to agree on a purchase price with the property's owner. Under eminent domain, the government can take private property for public use if it meets certain criteria. The property owner would be entitled to compensation.
During segregation, there were once 42 schools for black children throughout Travis County. The Montopolis school is one of the few that still remain, but over the years, the building has fallen into disrepair. The old schoolhouse sits vacant in a largely empty field.
After buying the property in 2015, developer Austin Stowell made plans to tear down the building and redevelop the site, potentially bringing new housing to the area. That idea quickly drew pushback from neighborhood preservationists and longtime Montopolis residents who attended the school as children. Some saw the demolition as a potential erasure of the neighborhood's history.
Stowell said he wasn’t aware of the property's historical significance when he bought it, and he has since put his redevelopment plans on hold.
Last year, the City Council approved a measure to buy the site from Stowell, and the city manager's office got to work developing a plan for restoring and maintaining the school building as a museum.
Alex Gale, an assistant director with Austin's Office of Real Estate Services, said the city made an offer of $362,000 based on the property's appraised value. The site was valued at $176,339 in 2015, the year Stowell bought it.
Stowell ultimately did not agree to a price, so the council approved the eminent domain measure.
In an emailed statement to KUT, he said, "all parties agree that preserving the school is the ideal path forward," though they disagree on how to do it.
"Taxpayers should be aware that acquisition of the school is only the beginning," he said. "The historic renovation of the structure as well as maintenance and programming will cost millions of dollars and be an expenditure that will continue in perpetuity."
Gale said there is still a chance they could come to an agreement over the next two to three months.