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Opposition high to Brackenridge tract development

Friday, June 27, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

Residents crowded the boardroom at the Lower Colorado River Authority on Wednesday night, literally denying the possibility the University of Texas could be as cold-hearted as to develop the 346-acre Brackenridge tract.

How could they? Surely, the university would recognize the error of such a plan – and possibly even turn to sell one of its many downtown properties – in order to preserve land that has been so identified with Austin’s core values. A couple of speakers even suggested that UT would not be able to incur the “forever black eye” that developing the tract into some type of income-producing property might bring.

Even the fact that a team of 15 consultants led by New York-based Cooper, Robertson & Partners was sitting at the front of the room failed to sink in with many of the participants, who clearly thought that dissuading UT from any development was possible.

As one lawyer in the audience noted about mid-way through the meeting, the community had told the university what it wanted, and it was obvious no one in the room wanted development on the Brackenridge tract. If that was the case, what was the point of the meeting in the first place?

Well, they were there to listen, the audience was told, as hired public involvement team members scribbled each comment on large white pages at the corners of the room. Among the team members was Beverly Silas, who led the initial planning efforts of Envision Central Texas, as well ECT-style planning on several tracts.

It was clear, from the comments made, that this community was in the early stages of denial, the first step in the five stages of grief described by Kübler-Ross. Right now, the West Austin Neighborhood Group is in denial with a heavy dose of anger. By the time the team beings the week of workshops to the community, it is hoped community members will be the bargain stage, or possibly depression and acceptance.

Many spoke. Long-time activist Mary Arnold stood in the middle of the audience, wearing one of her old “Save Muny” T-shirts. This was not the first, but the third, time that the community had stood up to try to save the Lions Municipal Golf Course.

“I got involved with the first fight to save Muny in 1973, and I’ve been at it a long time. We’re still saying the same things today,” Arnold said. “It’s forever green. Save Muny green space. It’s an important urban green space in our community. We said that in the 80s when they wanted to bulldoze the course and we’re saying it now.”

Billed as a “listening session,” the consultants did little of the talking. The community outlined its priorities: getting rid of the historic golf course was out of the question; the graduate housing was a must; and the biology field lab was the cornerstone of one of the premier programs in the country.

Then came the comments that seemed a bit more extreme:

  • the woman with a doctorate in civil engineering who said the plan to develop Brackenridge should not disturb a single blade of grass or piece of dirt;
  • the man who suggested that development would create additional traffic woes for a neighborhood barely 5 minutes from downtown; or
  • the investment banker who insisted he had one house on three lots and had never put down additional houses because he knew how much his neighbors loved and valued their green space.

Kirk Sauer told the consultants his priority would be to redevelop the graduate married student housing on the tract. The university owns 500 units of housing in the area, with another 600 people on the waiting list.

“What I would like to see is the revenue coming from the sale of some of the other thousands of pieces of land that UT owns,” Sauer said. “I think, just in Travis County alone, UT owns 200-plus properties, including several blocks in downtown Austin. I question the premise of the whole project out here. If UT needs money – and we all know the university needs money – why are we studying this one property where UT students live and not any of the other property that UT owns?”

Sometimes the information was more insightful. For instance, a survey of the West Austin Neighborhood Group indicated that about half the residents wanted to keep the 18-hole golf course. The second amenity on the land most prized by local homeowners was the West Austin youth sports fields. In addition, some residents indicated they preferred to see more restaurants over retail along the corridor, possibly because of the loss of a couple of restaurants in Tarrytown recently.

And one mother, in a practical vein, noted that both the local elementary schools were overcrowded. The developer team needed to be working with the Austin Independent School District to anticipate which school might handle growth.

The original conveyance of the Brackenridge tract was 503 acres. In the 1990s, about 90 acres was separated from the tract and sold. And another 70 acres were conveyed or dedicated for streets, public utilities or easements.

The Muny Golf Course, currently under lease to the city, is about 151 acres. The West Austin Youth Association fields are another 15. Student housing is 74 acres. And the field laboratory is about 82 acres of property.

At the next meeting on the Brackenridge tract, on August 12, the consultant team will outline the feedback it has gotten on the tract. A weeklong series of workshops in November is intended to draft two possible plans for Brackenridge to present to regents.

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