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Robert Breunig leaves his mark on Austin

Monday, December 1, 2003 by

Director brought acreage, influence, science to Wildflower Center

As his time in Austin draws to a close, Director of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center Robert Breunig is being honored and congratulated on the role he has played in expanding and revitalizing the Wildflower Center as well as on his work to protect the Hill Country and the Edwards Aquifer. Breunig, who has been director of the center since late 1997, will leave Austin at the end of the week to take over as director of the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff. When he begins his new job, Breunig will be returning to familiar territory. From 1975-1982 Breunig served as the museum’s curator and head of the department of anthropology. As much as he loves Austin, he says, there is a mountain in Flagstaff that that has a magical pull on him.

During the past six years, Breunig has transformed the Wildflower Center from a tract of 43 acres surrounded by land platted for development into a 246-acre research center with a growing national reputation. Of equal importance to Breunig and to the future of the center is the fact that it now sits amidst almost 3,000 acres of contiguous open space that will not be turned into subdivisions or other development. Some of that land was designated to protect water quality under bonds approved in 1998. But the center raised funds and purchased other major swaths of land, part of which is being used for scientific research that can benefit not only Texas but also landscapes across the country.

Environmentalist Robin Rather said, “Robert Breunig’s quiet, determined style will be missed by many in the environmental community. The Wildflower Center became more of a force to be reckoned with under his watch. For the first time, it became an active participant in the community dialog about how to achieve environmental protection in Austin. By adroit negotiation in the Bradley and Stratus settlements, the Wildflower Center added significant acres of open space to its holdings as well as helping to set a ‘high bar’ for diplomacy. Breunig and his team have had a particular impact on the idea of stewardship of the land—meaning what do we do with it once we have saved it from development? Walking around the Wildflower Center these days gives a lasting impression of how they think it should be done. He will be difficult to replace.”

Breunig recalled that when he came to Austin in August of 1997 to interview for the job there was an undeveloped parcel of land across the street from the center. He received the job offer in September and came back to Austin in October for a board meeting. “The bulldozers had showed up and that land was being bulldozed for this new subdivision called Wildflower Park,” which was to be a Bradley development. That was my wake-up call. Because when I went through the interview, we didn’t talk about the environmental context of the Wildflower Center. When you stood at the Wildflower Center you could look out and there was all this land. And Luci Johnson said it really well. She said, ‘We owned it with our eyes.’ The first week I was there I pulled out the maps and said, what’s the story here? There were a few things that horrified me immediately. I discovered we had 43 acres there and we were completely surrounded by eventual development. I mean all the way around it . . . So that was a shock. And (on) the land to the south, a 136-acre tract had been platted. There were 518 home sites on (those) 136 acres.

“I just thought, ‘This can’t happen.’ It wasn’t disturbed at all . . . and then I started walking out there. It was just beautiful . . . Huge oak trees and grasses, wildflowers everywhere. I was just imagining what would happen. First there would be all the noise and disruption during construction and you could just see all this grassland and savanna being churned up; and then on top of that, all those homes there, the whole context of the Wildflower Center would be changed in a very fundamental way. And I thought it would kill us ecologically, esthetically and even kind of spiritually. It would just so diminish the center. It would be just horrible.”

Developer Gary Bradley owned the property, which was due for City of Austin annexation in December. The developer evidently “wanted to get some stuff going on the ground before the annexation” says Breunig.

“So I just started bringing this up with the board . . . My focus was protecting the beauty and integrity of the Wildflower Center by protecting the land around it. So I had to make the case to the Wildflower Center board that we had to do this. That no matter what it cost, we had to because the money that had already been invested in the center would be wasted, and I didn’t want to preside over that.

“I was very fortunate because Ellen Temple was the president of the board. She immediately understood what I was trying to say. So she supported me and the immediate problem was that Gary didn’t want to sell it to us . . . and we didn’t have the money. He wasn’t going to make any sweetheart deals. He wanted to sell it for houses.”

Bradley eventually sold the land for about $4 million after a year-and-a-half of negotiation, Breunig said, at slightly less than the appraised value.

Breunig not only learned about Austin politics, but also a valuable lesson in fundraising and thus started a program that will be his legacy at the center. “I went to Jack Blanton to talk about this and he gave me one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received. He said, ‘Bob, you can’t just raise the money for raw land. You’ve got to have a program.’ So I gave that a lot of thought. When I’d been at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix we’d started a program there in desert restoration, so I started thinking about the whole idea of restoration. And then the Society for Ecological Restoration, which is an international organization, was having their meeting in Austin that year and the director was here and I said what do you think about this as the site to demonstrate the concepts of ecological restoration? He looked at it and said he thought it would be excellent for that. So we started to develop the concept of having an ecological restoration program that would be sited on the property.” With that in mind, Breunig and board members were able to raise money from some major foundations because there was great need for an ecological restoration program. In June of 1999, the Wildflower Center concluded the land purchase from Bradley.

That land has helped to “return science to the Wildflower Center,” Breunig says. Before that purchase, “the science part had been put on hold. When I got there, the center didn’t have any science,” even though the place still wore the moniker of “National Wildflower Research Center.” Breunig hired Steve Windhager, who has a PhD in land restoration. “And right out of the box we got a contract with the City of Austin and the Nature Conservancy to manage the Prop 2 lands for the city. So we were getting our program up and running. That program has been a great success. We’ve just built trails through the area . . . about a mile loop. To me, this program was bringing real substance back into the Wildflower Center.” ( In Fact Daily will detail this program in a separate story next week.)

Council Member Daryl Slusher said, “Bob has been able to take the Wildflower Center in a direction where it became a key player in protecting the aquifer. That of course was contrary to what some key activists maintained when they opposed location of the center there. He sees the center as part of the overall community, both the Southwest Austin community and the Austin region as a whole. He not only was central in preserving a lot of land from development, but he played a key role in bringing better maintenance and horticulture practices on developed land.”

Breunig also played a key role in negotiations between Stratus Properties and the City of Austin—a role that caused him a great deal of soul-searching and brought another 105 acres of prime property under the Wildflower Center’s control. He hired Lauren Ross, an engineer who specializes in hydrogeology and has a reputation as a staunch environmentalist.

“Two of the Stratus tracts adjacent to the Wildflower Center were planned for commercial development. So, we still had some threat.” Breunig was talking to Stratus CEO Beau Armstrong about what it would take for the center to acquire the land. Then, the city started talking to Stratus about settling the lawsuit between the two. After the Wildflower Center entered that discussion, Stratus proposed to give 105 acres to the center and transfer development rights off of that land and cluster development on the part they were developing.

“This posed a really interesting dilemma because I was very nervous about having the center involved in a deal that would let Stratus go forward—particularly if the deal would appear to bust the SOS ordinance—which it did. So I took some very basic positions. The proposed deal had to, in the aggregate, comply with SOS—the SOS bucket approach— and all the tracts together would equal SOS. We would have higher density on a few sites and none on some . . . and the clustering would have no net degradation of water quality compared to strict application of SOS.”

Ross looked at Stratus’ proposal and told Breunig that “not only would there not be any degradation but that it would be better in terms of water quality than strict SOS, because when you cluster it you have less restriction on the site . . . you could control the runoff better . . . So, knowing that I felt confident moving ahead. Then we went back to Stratus and said we would like to participate in this deal, but in order to do it we need a number of things. There was a little bit of chutzpah on our part, but it worked.” Those other things included a tribute to the mission of the Wildflower Center, a commitment to use only native plants, a very tight building envelope and generous setbacks from Critical Environmental Features. In addition, Breunig said, the Wildflower Center asked for and got a commitment to use high Green Building standards and not allow big box development.

“The other thing we did was we supported the idea of the city reducing the density through fee waivers,” Breunig says, “and so the density actually came down below what would be permitted by SOS. We got the land and I like to think we set some really high standards for that part of the aquifer and I think it gave us some really good talking points when Wal-Mart came along.”

Nearly 40 years ago, President Lyndon Johnson, at the urging of his First Lady, called a White House Conference on Natural Beauty. Breunig believes that the landscape restoration projects being done at the Wildflower Center are a continuation of the legacy Mrs. Johnson began after that 1965 conference. To that end, Breunig has worked with Melanie Barnes, president of the Wildflower Center board, to make the center more active on a national level in ensuring plant diversity. “We’re losing landscapes wholecloth,” he said. “If you don’t have healthy landscapes, you don’t have a healthy society . . . So, I think Mrs. Johnson’s legacy is best protected, best extended, by giving that message to as large an audience as possible. It’s wonderful to have a beautiful garden named after Mrs. Johnson, but that is not enough. Her legacy is really about public policy. The Wildflower Center needs to be there.”

“It is important for people in Austin to realize what an incredibly special community they have. People talk about all the tree-huggers in Austin, but they make this a truly wonderful place. We shouldn’t retreat from that. The forces of the world are arrayed against them. They need to be resolute—strong—and they need to bring a sense of joy to what they do and avoid bitterness.”

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

Hurrying . . . The city’s Chief Environmental Officer, Pat Murphy, is rushing to negotiate with stakeholders on the joint city-county subdivision code, which must be approved by year’s end. Real estate stakeholders have submitted their own version of the ordinance, which Murphy is now trying to reconcile with the city-county version. Murphy is scheduled to meet with some of those stakeholders today. The Council has approved two readings of the ordinance, known as Chapter 30 in the City Code, and is poised for third, and final, reading. With Travis County Commissioners set to take up the issue tomorrow, and the City Council scheduled for only two meetings in December, Murphy will have to be quick. He admits it would be difficult to make “any major modifications” at this point, but he’s still looking for some compromise. If either the city or the county fail to agree on the ordinance by Jan. 1, they would be forced into state-mandated arbitration . . . In case you missed it . . . The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce is opposing the proposal to limit certain types of retail uses over the Barton Springs zone of the Edwards Aquifer. The proposal, which is on the Council’s agenda for consideration this week, would limit the size of “big box” retail outlets over the Barton Springs zone. Exceptions would be allowed for grocery stores. The chamber’s position paper cites figures from the Institute of Traffic Engineers showing that large-scale retail outlets generate less traffic than other retail facilities. The chamber also points to the possibility that the proposed ordinance could drive major retailers outside the city limits, hurting the city’s sales tax base. Instead, the chamber would like to see an incentive program to help businesses install new pollution-control technology along with new design guidelines to help make sure large-scale retail centers fit existing neighborhoods . . . Planning Commission no fan of big boxes . . . The Planning Commission followed the lead of the Environmental Board last week on the big-box ordinance, supporting the staff recommendation with one exception. That exception would set supermarket size of 85,000 square feet. The commission also recommended a friendly amendment by Acting Chair Chris Riley that would limit those uses once a big box was vacated. Those uses that were prohibited at under 50,000 square feet would also be prohibited for vacant big-box grocery stores. Commissioner Dave Sullivan told his colleagues he avoided big box retail himself, but his support of the ordinance was based on environmental, rather than economic, reasons. Commissioner Maggie Armstrong said the ordinance, which targets the aquifer, would provide consistent decisions. A motion by Commissioner Matt Moore to wait to apply the ordinance citywide died for lack of a second . . . UT Medical branch almost ready to take over 5th Floor of Brackenridge . . . The paperwork should be finished this week to allow UTMB to run the new Austin Women’s Hospital on the fifth floor of Brackenridge. UT Regents voted in November to accept the agreement, pending a final review by the University’s legal staff and Chancellor Mark Yudof. Karen Sexton, the Chief Operating Officer of UTMB, expects that review to be completed in the next few days . . . Design Commission meets . . . The Design Commission will talk about its mission in light of the report from the task force on commissions. The panel meets at 5:45pm at 1011 San Jacinto in the 3rd floor conference room.

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