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New UT arena slated for downtown, but questions linger

Tuesday, April 11, 2017 by Chad Swiatecki

A big piece of downtown Austin’s future fell into place on Friday with the announcement that the arena that will replace the Frank Erwin Center will be located close to the current arena on the University of Texas’ eastern border downtown.

University of Texas President Greg Fenves told the school’s development board that the new arena that will host UT’s men’s and women’s basketball programs will be located south of Mike A. Myers Stadium, at the intersection of Red River Street and Robert Dedman Drive. No capacity or budget plans were released with the announcement, though the new facility is expected to come online in the next five to seven years.

The announcement brings an end to what had been something of a years-long parlor game for local politicos and business people who wondered how UT would find enough property in its mostly landlocked downtown footprint to keep the new arena on campus.

Speculation by various powerbrokers had the new facility going anywhere from the waterfront site of the Austin American-Statesman to the J.J. Pickle Research Campus in North Austin. There was talk the university could execute a complex land swap with the Austin Independent School District that would let it use the Stephen F. Austin High School site.

In the end, squeezing the arena near the nearly half century-old Erwin Center was seen as the best option.

“Coaches Karen Aston and Shaka Smart want the next facility to be on campus, where it is easier for our student-athletes to travel between their dorms, classes and practice. It also makes the games more accessible to our student fans,” Fenves said in a prepared statement. “By choosing a central location, we will make the experience of going to a game more intimate and exciting for all who participate.”

The Erwin Center’s eventual demolition was hastened when its property was designated for reuse as part of the expanded campus for UT’s Dell Medical School, which is expected to generate economic development in a health care “innovation zone” in the area around 15th and Trinity streets.

The university appears to have made the arena decision on its own, but downtown boosters applauded the news it will be close to other cultural events and economic activity.

“We are pleased to hear the new arena will be on campus and in the vicinity of downtown,” said Dewitt Peart, president and CEO of the Downtown Austin Alliance. “The new location of the arena is just north of the planned Innovation Zone, which is anchored by the new Dell Medical School. Keeping the arena within walking distance of this area will add to the attraction of the Innovation Zone for new development opportunities and investors.”

The next move for the university will be to announce the seating capacity and cost of the next basketball arena, which would also play host to touring concerts and other events.

The Erwin Center, which opened in 1977, can seat up to 16,500 attendees. The school’s 2016 athletics master plan said creating a facility that can accommodate basketball and other entertainment uses would put its likely capacity at just over 17,000, though basketball attendance is typically around 12,200.

New basketball arenas recently opened or planned for other universities around the country frequently come with a cost around $100 million or more. A recent Sports Business Daily analysis noted the University of Illinois and DePaul University are each spending more than $160 million for new arenas, while the University of Mississippi and Texas Christian University are spending $95 million and $72 million, respectively.

Lance Aldridge, executive director of the Austin Sports Commission, said the university will likely have little trouble raising donor dollars to fund the new arena, though a planned upgrade with suites at the south end zone of Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium is likely higher on the school’s to-do list.

“The location confirmation of the arena goes a long way to identifying their long-term direction, but from what I’ve heard the south end zone expansion is higher on their list of priorities,” he said.

“When you look at those facilities, Texas needs things like a new weight room, and it’ll be a lot easier to sell 15 to 20 suites than to sell tickets for a few thousand new seats there. At the end of the day, fundraising (for the arena) is not an issue for the university, but the alumni interest in basketball versus football is well known.”

Photo by Larry D. Moore [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.

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