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Consultant briefs Council subcommittee on UT lands

Tuesday, June 10, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

David McGregor, the outside consultant hired by the University of Texas to lead development of plans for the Brackenridge tract, attended the Council Land Use and Transportation subcommittee meeting on Monday afternoon to talk about the public involvement process for the tract.

The idea of someone representing the University of Texas attending a city planning meeting – or even asking for the city’s approval on a project — is a novel concept. UT has never been known for its cozy relationship with the city and county, whether it was the university’s response to a proposal for joint ownership of a new downtown library or a requested review of the design details of the university’s new conference center hotel. And the Legislature exempted the Darrell K. Royal Stadium expansion from restrictions imposed by the Capitol View corridors.

In any case, McGregor – of New York’s Cooper Robertson – was on hand at Monday’s meeting with half of his local team. Most would be familiar to City Hall regulars: attorney Henry Gilmore; transportation consultant Mike Weaver; land planner Sean Compton; and former Envision Central Texas Executive Director Beverly Silas, who will be handling the public involvement piece of the planning process.

Cooper Robertson’s $5.1 million contract obligates the company to produce at least two master plans for the 345-acre site, as well as the skeleton for what sort of funding mechanism might be feasible on each project. McGregor quoted Jim Walker of the Mueller Neighborhoods Coalition, noting that Walker had told him that Cooper Robertson was expected to put together in 13 months what it took the supporters of Mueller’s redevelopment 13 years to do. 

McGregor said the consultant team started with the idea of a public steering committee but then abandoned the concept when it became apparent how many stakeholders wanted to be involved. Instead, the consultant has planned six months of listening and interacting with the community, followed by six months of planning.

Silas said the plan would have two initial opportunities for input. A listening session is scheduled for June 25. That will be followed on August 12 with an informational meeting and an introduction of the consulting team. Both meetings will take place in the LCRA Board Room, starting at 6:30 p.m.

“We’re gong to spend the first six months, until the end of the year, trying to understand the places, people and values of the project,” McGregor said. “The second six months will be an attempt to offer up these recommendations and create a plan. We’ll evolve them through public meetings with a bunch of feedback loops. And then when we feel we’ve heard what everybody had to say, we’ll take the recommendations to the regents.”

Consultants have slated a weeklong series of workshop sessions on the development of the plan for the week of Nov 3. Those meetings will be held in the former Lakeview Café, which is now the LCRA’s Colorado Room.

UT’s first proposed plan for the Brackenridge site – which would have removed the Lions Municipal Golf Course, biology field labs and graduate student housing and emphasized the maximum profit for the university – hit the ground with a loud thud.

During citizen comments at Monday afternoon’s meeting, graduate student Anna Gonzales talked about the features of the graduate school population currently living on the tract. Roy Waley of the Austin group of Sierra Club noted that when Col. Brackenridge gave the tract to UT, he wanted it to serve the highest and best use for the property and not the highest and best dollar amount.

The 40-year-old biology field lab on the site has pushed the UT biology program to be one of the Top 10 in the country, Whaley said. The Brackenridge tract was not a brown field – like Mueller – but a vibrant community that needed to be supported, he said.

Prompted by McCracken, McGregor did note that the coordination of the project would require a certain amount of phasing. For instance, agreements on the land allow the land under the Colorado Apartments to be developed, as of 1999. The University has the right to develop the land under the Brackenridge Apartments, as of 2009. However, the balance of the property – including the golf course – will not be available for redevelopment until 2019, if at all.

Council Member Sheryl Cole said she welcomed future visits to the Council committee. In addition, she noted that she also wanted to make sure it was abundantly clear that this property’s redevelopment belonged to the university and not the city. The city does lease the golf course at a cost of $345,000 per year.

“Before our phones start ringing, I want to make sure there’s no confusion about the fact that UT owns 100 percent of that tract,” Cole said. “You’re in charge of that tract, and I don’t want people to be confused. I want people to know it’s you guys, not us.”

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