The cost of land in Montopolis

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The old Montopolis Negro School at 500 Montopolis Drive, via Google Streetview.

The city of Austin is engaged in a legal battle with developer Austin Stowell over a one-acre piece of property in Montopolis. It’s trying to seize the land by eminent domain in order to preserve an old structure on the property that was formerly the Montopolis Negro School, one of multiple “rural Negro schools” that once existed in Travis County during the Jim Crow era. Some Council members have said they believe the structure should become a museum.

The city last year offered Stowell $362,000 for the parcel. He appealed and a Special Commissioners Hearing raised the offer to $464,000. He says he’s going to take the case to court now.

Interestingly, just yesterday City Council endorsed an application for a Low Income Housing Tax Credit project on a property just behind Stowell’s parcel. The backup information shows that the developer acquired that two-acre lot for $2 million. Stowell’s lot is about half the size, so it stands to reason that he could probably get about half that price on the market.

That seems like a pretty compelling piece of evidence to submit in court. But even if the city wins in court, it’s hard to see this ending up well for city taxpayers.

You may recall that the Parks Department has estimated the cost of the necessary renovations at $5.7 million. That’s an astronomical cost that I find almost impossible to believe, but if we’re going to be spending that kind of money on a museum, we better make sure it’s a museum that as many people as possible will visit.

Museums should be located in places that are already experiencing a lot of foot traffic. Our HOT dollars could have much greater impact if we built upon the existing investments in African American history in E. 11th/12th St. area, such as the George Washington Carver Museum and the African American Cultural and Heritage Facility.

We can preserve the building –– the developer has offered to do that –– without dedicating any city resources. And then we can devote our very limited funds to museums and cultural facilities that will impact as many people as possible.

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