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City, UT to work together on moving Red River

Friday, February 8, 2019 by Jo Clifton

City Council unanimously agreed Thursday to enter into an agreement with the University of Texas to facilitate the relocation of Red River Street between East 12th Street and East 32nd Street in order to develop a new arena to replace the Frank Erwin Center. That was the easy part.

The harder part came during the discussion about whether, in return for transferring city right-of-way to UT and providing assistance in design and construction of the roadway, the university would “credit an amount agreed to by the parties toward the purchase of Lions Municipal Golf Course or to other agreed upon projects,” according to agenda backup material accompanying the item.

Council Member Alison Alter offered an amendment making clear that while credit toward the purchase price of Muny was one of the projects that might receive funding, others might include “provision of affordable housing or the provision of open space.”

Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza and Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison both voiced objections to the language specifically naming Muny. Harper-Madison offered an amendment that would have eliminated references to how the money might be used, deferring that decision until a later time. Council rejected that amendment on a vote of 6-5.

Council did accept an amendment from Garza directing staff to look for other projects throughout the city that “could benefit from credit received” through the agreement with UT.

Garza said despite Mayor Steve Adler’s assertion that the money had not been earmarked for Muny, it still felt like a “soft earmark.” She said she was concerned that one or two people had gone “behind closed doors” to negotiate with the university without others knowing about it or options other than Muny being discussed.

Adler assured her that was not the case.

Muny is on the National Register of Historic Places because in 1950 or ’51 it became the first desegregated golf course in the South. UT has leased the land to the city since 1936, but the university had previously announced it would not renew the lease after its expiration this year. However, UT has agreed to extend the lease for the Brackenridge tract and the golf course to May 25, 2020. The lease extension will cost the city $497,663 per year.

Supporters of Muny have been urging the city to find the money to purchase it for many years. Two supporters of the effort to save the golf course, Mary Arnold and August Harris, gave Council a little perspective.

Arnold said she was experiencing déjà vu as she told Council that Mayor Roy Butler had worked out an agreement with the UT Board of Regents in September 1973 to continue the city’s lease. In return, as Arnold recalled, the city would help UT relocate Red River Street.

Harris told Council that he has been “deeply involved in this for more than a decade.” He said the community “has long been willing to step forward and help in this process.” Later, Harris told the Austin Monitor that UT had settled on the figure of $109 million as the price tag for Muny. Even though the property is on the tax rolls for more than $200 million, there are many constraints to developing it, including reconfiguring parts of MoPac Expressway. Harris expressed confidence that members of the public and perhaps philanthropists would step forward to help the city with the purchase.

One citizen attending Thursday’s meeting was extremely upset about the idea of realigning Red River Street once again. George Gaston, who lives at 32nd and Red River, said he first learned about the planned realignment from the Austin American-Statesman, and he didn’t think that was right. He complained that although residents were told Red River Street would be closed for two years for construction of the hospital, it was closed from 15th Street to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard for four years.

Council Member Kathie Tovo asked City Manager Spencer Cronk whether the realignment was a new idea. Cronk said realigning Red River had been on the city’s to-do list for a while, but because of the resolution Council was passing and discussions with the university, the city was moving the project higher on the list.

Attorney Richard Suttle, who represents UT, said regents would be considering their side of the Interlocal Agreement at their Feb. 27 meeting. Suttle told Council that UT President Greg Fenves wants to be more collaborative and work with the city on a broader basis than just one or two issues “because the university values its relationship with the city and I think the city does with UT as well. And the two of them together are basically invincible.”

After the item was approved, Alter told the Monitor, “I think we all agree that the city is expediting this process and providing right-of-way to realign Red River, which helps the university to secure the arena, which also benefits the city and I’m pleased that we have acknowledged our common goals of securing open space at Muny, (and) affordable housing – all of which are part of the conversations that we’re having with respect to the broader Brackenridge agreement … I’m pleased that we’re able to do this in a quick time frame because we have reshaped the relationship with UT and have been working closely with them to figure out what this might look like.”

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

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