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UT Conference Center planned with back to city

Tuesday, April 25, 2006 by

Some Design Commissioners rebuke planners

The University of Texas gave the city’s Design Commission a sneak peek at the architectural plans for its new Executive Education and Conference Center last night. However, some commission members responded by lecturing the UT officials on designing its facilities to be a portal—and not a barrier—to the city.

UT’s planned facility, will be bounded by MLK Boulevard, University Avenue, 20th Street and Whitis Street, and will feature 75,000 square feet of meeting space, 300 guest rooms and three restaurants. The building’s main entrances will be on University and Whitis, with a landscaped walkway running along the MLK side of the building.

That was part of the problem, according to Commissioner Juan Cotera.

“Once again, the university has turned its back on the community,” he said. “The design along MLK needs to be more pedestrian friendly. Just like the Blanton (Art Museum) project, the entrance to the building faces inward, with the back to the city. The university needs to be more porous, with fewer walls to separate it from the city.”

Will Shepherd, the project manager for the center, responded that the UT wanted to use University Avenue, with its wide median and direct view of the UT Tower, as the pedestrian entrance to the facility. He also noted that traffic volume was too high to allow an entrance to the center on MLK.

The facility’s primary mission, he said, will be to host a residential learning environment that will offer business professionals and students access to the business knowledge created and disseminated at the McCombs School of Business. The facility will contain seven tiered classrooms, a 300-seat amphitheater, multiple break-out rooms, several conference rooms and an 800-seat ballroom.

“Even though the focus is on the McCombs School, it was built for the entire university,” said Pat Clubb, Vice President for Employee and Campus Services. “Our studies indicate that with number of alumni in Austin and around the state, we confident that 90 to 95 percent of the events we host will be UT affiliated.”

From a design perspective, Shepherd said that the facility was built within the campus design standards adopted by the University 12 years ago, including the distinctive tile roof, buff bricks and a limestone base. The landscaping will include a number of large oak trees that will be relocated from the north end of Memorial Stadium, where new seats are being added. Other landscaping will include native Texas plants and trees.

Shepherd said that the center’s plans had to be redesigned when the University was denied the ability to use the land where Players Restaurant is located at MLK and Whitis. The center’s parking was moved from the West side of the complex to below ground level, and the entire complex was contained within one city block.

Commissioner Girard Kinney attempted to strike a conciliatory note, saying what was needed was dialogue between the university and the city. “We hope we can provide input at an earlier stage in future projects,” he said. “UT has perceived its border as … a border. People often do not think about how buildings cause them to interact with the city, but there is a correlation.”

But Cotera was still trying to make his point. “Many of us remember from the 1960s a campus that was open and interacted with the city,” he said. “That has changed. We want to reclaim the streets for the people. We want a campus that allows the student body to be a part of the city.”

No room in Downtown?

Commission survey shows land for residential redevelopment in short supply

A survey presented to the Downtown Commission shows a relative shortage of space available to increase the population density within the city's central business district. Commissioner Robert Knight told the group that despite public perception of downtown as being underdeveloped, the area actually had relatively few parcels that could easily be redeveloped for new residential units.

"This is an attempt to provide an inventory of property that is developable within a relatively short time frame in downtown Austin," he said. "It's very subjective. It got done because a group of us sat around a conference table and went through existing improvements on these properties and subjectively analyzed them and said…are these properties likely to be redeveloped or developed in the near future?"

The Downtown Development Committee of the Downtown Commission identified most of the developable or re-developable lots as being within various Capitol View Corridors or within the Rainey Street neighborhood. Using a rough calculation that a downtown city block developed at an 8 to 1 floor-to-area ratio could house about 1,000 people, Knight said that would require the equivalent of 25 city blocks to house the population that Mayor Will Wynn would like to see downtown.

"What I’m telling you is there are not 25 blocks within the high-intensity triangle that are available," he concluded, urging his fellow commissioners to begin spreading that message to City Hall and the consultants hired to work on a new master plan for downtown.

Commissioner Perry Lorenz warned that the scarcity of real estate downtown could impact the city's ability to promote affordable housing. "What we've got is a huge spotlight on Austin for people who want to live downtown," he said. . “And we've got this 'Tokyo effect' where we've got an absolutely limited downtown. We're about to experience an order of magnitude shift in land values. If this continues, I'd say we’ll see a doubling. It means the whole notion of affordability…without a huge committment from the city, there's simply not going to be any real meaningful affordable housing downtown."

The commission did not take any official action on the report, but could do so at its meeting next month. That action could include requests to meet with Council members to brief them on the survey. Knight also said he hoped that, in the meantime, the report would spur discussion on the boundaries of downtown, the Capitol View Corridors, and historic zoning.

"The main thing is most of this property is already developed," he said. "Within the high-intensity triangle, there are about 70 blocks of which probably 90 percent are fully or more than half developed…with very expensive improvements that are not going to be redeveloped any time soon. If we really are serious about the idea of getting intense development with a lot of people, we have some hard choices to make."

©2006 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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