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UT, city start negotiating a development deal

Wednesday, May 20, 2020 by Jo Clifton

In response to a City Council request in February, the University of Texas has presented the broad outline of an agreement for developing its Austin properties, including the Brackenridge tract, the Pickle Research Center West, Sematech in East Austin, and the Gateway property, which is just east of MoPac Expressway on Sixth Street.

Attorney Richard Suttle, who represents UT, said in a letter to the city that despite the Covid-19 pandemic, it is important that the city and UT reach conceptual agreement on developing the university’s properties before the departure of UT president Greg Fenves. Fenves, who has personally championed reaching an agreement with the city, has accepted an appointment as president of Emory University in Atlanta. His last day at UT is May 29. Regents have appointed the dean of UT-Austin’s business school, Jay Hartzell, as interim president.

Council members heard a report at Tuesday’s work session from Andy Linseisen of the Development Services Department on UT’s proposal, which does not include purchase of the historic Lions Municipal Golf Course. A separate agreement gives the city a five-month notice of termination should UT decide to end the current lease.

Perhaps the most contentious part of the proposal is the development of the Brackenridge tract on Lake Austin Boulevard in West Austin. Suttle’s letter offered a guarantee of 40 percent open space on that tract.

UT is also proposing to pay for certain infrastructure improvements through possible use of tax increment financing, so the burden would not fall on the city. The letter also indicated that the university intends to negotiate with the West Austin Youth Association for its purchase of about 14 acres of property which the group currently occupies.

Council Member Alison Alter, whose District 10 includes the tract, said 40 percent was not nearly enough. “First I want us to preserve the publicly accessible open space, green space, to meet existing needs and the significantly increased needs of a new development and to create a nature-based trail connectivity to reduce vehicle trips,” she said. Second, “I want to right-size the development for the transportation infrastructure. I think these two goals also align with the university’s goal to have a high-quality development.”

She added that she appreciated the flexibility UT’s proposal gives for open space, while allowing it to sell the development rights. “I think it important that we realize that open space is not antithetical to development,” Alter said, adding, “I want to see … closer to 200 acres that would remain free from commercial development.” She also asked that UT work with the city’s Transportation Department, which has developed a number of options based on traffic data and travel pattern analysis.

Alter expressed optimism that the city and UT could reach an agreement.” I would like for UT to show us their pretty pictures and their design plans. I’m totally comfortable to count WAYA (West Austin Youth Association) in the green space.”

She concluded, “I think if we can rethink how we conceptualize this project … we can really move forward … and close some of these loopholes before President Fenves leaves.”

In addition, the university envisions “a minimum of 2 million square feet of development” on the Town Lake Tracts and proposes to pay for traffic mitigation through use of a tax increment reinvestment zone, or TIRZ.

While the city believes UT is subject to city zoning regulations on property not being used for university purposes, UT disagrees. However, the university is proposing a development agreement between the two that would allow for development to move forward, according to the letter.

The university is also proposing commercial mixed-use zoning for the Pickle Research Center and LI-PDA zoning for the Sematech property at 2706 Montopolis Drive, which would have mixed-use with high density, according to the letter. Council Member Pio Renteria, whose district includes the Sematech property, expressed alarm about that level of development and what it might do to the traffic infrastructure plans.

According to Suttle’s letter, “subject to market conditions” and the city’s willingness to participate in infrastructure improvements, “UT will either construct or purchase and make available a minimum of 682 beds for graduate, undergraduate or medical school student housing on or near campus. The goal is to free up existing non-university affordable housing that is currently occupied by UT students.”

The proposal, Suttle wrote, “is intended to create a framework that would accomplish several objectives,” including freeing up affordable housing in other parts of the city, creating revenue through the TIRZ and reinvesting that money in needed infrastructure improvements.

After the meeting, Suttle said, “It sounds like conversations are ongoing – and we look forward to continuing the conversations. For three years we’ve had virtually no conversations and now we’re having conversations.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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