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Board reluctantly OKs plan for private school campus on Riverside

Tuesday, June 28, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

The Waterfront Planning Advisory Board on Friday gave lukewarm approval to the addition of a makeshift private school on the Acton Business School campus on East Riverside Drive.


Acton Business School founder and Republican donor Jeff Sandefer was embroiled in one of the biggest controversies of the recent session: drafting a controversial seven-point plan to reform higher education in Texas. Although conservative think tanks and Gov. Rick Perry endorsed the plan, the Texas Exes and the University of Texas opposed it.


Sandefer, a one-time UT business school instructor, built Acton Business School on a pricey piece of real estate: the northeast corner of I-35 and Riverside Drive. Now he wants to put two additional one-story buildings on the property, labeled “temporary” on a site plan, to serve as a home for his private elementary school, Acton Academy, now located on West Avenue.


Two low-impact one-story school buildings will hardly mesh with the Waterfront Planning Advisory Board’s recommendations for denser south-shore development for that particular stretch of Lady Bird Lake shoreline. Commissioners recommended high-quality mixed-use pedestrian-friendly development for that stretch of lake, Chair Jim Knight said.


“We have a pretty good idea, as a group, where we want to go with this area, and if we had our druthers, we would like to see something more substantial on this property,” said Knight, noting the project met the obligations of city code. “We also know there’s nothing we can require you to do on this property.”


Acton Academy’s school campus must be open in September, so the plan is moving quickly through city channels. Asked what the label of “temporary” meant on the site plan, architect Tom Hatch said the buildings might eventually be removed, even replaced, with other construction or possibly a more intense high school campus use. That still left the commissioners with a sense of unease.


“What we all know about temporary buildings is that they turn into permanent buildings. Five, 10 years may turn out to be much, much longer,” said board member Roy Mann. “It would tend, in my mind, to have a depressing effect on the Interstate (area) in going through with processes that would yield high-quality architecture in the immediate area.”


That seemed to be the general consensus of the commissioners present, but a consensus over which the commission had little or no control. Board member Dean Almy agreed the Riverside corridor needed more substantial development, even as the commission was unable to dictate it.


“I think one of the roles of our board is to encourage that sort of density and programs and things that start to move us towards a sort of larger vision for the south side of the lake. Given that we are advisory, my instinct is not to encourage this kind of construction,” Almy admitted.

Board member Robert Pilgrim also agreed that the project lacked pizzazz, and was completely at odds with the board’s goal of encouraging quality urban design standards.


“I look at the simplicity of this architecture. Simplicity is not necessarily bad – most of the time it’s good – but when I look at this, it looks like the temporary trailers that you see pulled up next to the schools,” Pilgrim said. “If this is what it ends up being, I would prefer that it be heavily screened from the lake and from Riverside, whatever we can do to hide it.”


And that was that. The best the commissioners could offer was to suggest to Hatch and engineer Matt Moore that the campus be hidden from view.


“I think this is such a diminutive project, sandwiched between other projects, that it will almost be lost from the river and Riverside, visually,” Hatch said.


Knight said this project left him with the same unease the YMCA expansion project had, which was architecture that met all the literal standards but had failed to make the best and highest use of the waterfront property.


The board voted unanimously to approve the project. Knight said Hatch had no obligation to come back to the waterfront board but encouraged him to put a bit more “fizz and flash” into the project, if possible, before taking it to the Planning Commission for approval.

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