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Austin to become a better ‘laboratory’ for UT research under interlocal agreement

Friday, August 28, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

While City Council members and city departments have long sought help from the University of Texas to research challenges facing the city like gentrification or the “downtown puzzle,” there has never been a formal process to coordinate those efforts – until now.

Council unanimously approved a five-year interlocal agreement Thursday to remove organizational barriers for $7.5 million in research, consulting and technical assistance from University of Texas faculty.

Essentially, the agreement allows the city to commission new studies without needing Council’s approval for each project. Instead, per a request by Council Member Kathie Tovo, the city will provide the Audit and Finance Committee a written list of new agreements every six months while all new collaborative projects are coordinated using the terms of the agreement. By streamlining the process, Mayor Steve Adler said the agreement will help the city “better serve as a laboratory for University of Texas faculty.”

Jennifer Gardner, deputy vice president for research at UT, said historically the lack of a centralized agreement has limited the reach of some projects. “There are a lot of times where I or my staff might be able to recommend several other faculty or experts on the campus that would be a great fit for a particular need that the city has, but because all of these things are kind of happening ad hoc we don’t have a handle on the breadth or the scope of what’s going on in all the different research projects.”

Besides bringing more people to the table, the agreement will help clarify desired outcomes and timelines for each project and make the process more transparent.

Deputy City Manager Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde, who helped establish a similar agreement between the city of Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota before coming to Austin, told the Austin Monitor that the partnership had already created “successful scopes of work for our sustainability and food access teams” and had prompted Public Works to “leverage the contract for research on autonomous vehicles” within the first few weeks of adoption.

“The benefits of this approach were similar there as I would expect them to be here. Already this year we have spoken about leveraging this contract for data research on the issues surrounding homelessness, and we would expect additional interest from departments on a multitude of issues ranging from technology advancements, mobility and housing affordability, and even social justice research as part of our reimagining of public safety,” she said.

Recent examples of university-commissioned projects are the Uprooted study on displacement and gentrification, and the study on expanding the Austin Convention Center, which Tovo said “really transformed how we think about things.” Uprooted has also had a major impact on city planning, laying the foundation for the equity overlay concept in the Land Development Code rewrite and playing a central role in the city’s effort to get ahead of transit-related displacement that could result from the Project Connect mass transit system.

As a first step in the improved partnership, Council Member Alison Alter said she looks forward to moving beyond “just doing the policy research together” by taking steps to address problems that the university could help alleviate. Particularly, given the urgent need for affordable housing, Alter said the university could create more student housing to take pressure off of the city’s limited supply of income-restricted units.

“We have thousands and thousands of UT students who are living in our affordable housing and UT, I would hope, will think long and hard about how they can help us by making those investments. And I want to make clear that as a city we’re here to partner to think about how we can leverage any dollars that are invested to create more housing because right now those students are in our apartments and taking space away from our families, and oftentimes they are taking our designated affordable housing units because they know how to navigate the system.”

Last May, Gary Susswein, chief communications officer at UT, said the university was “firmly committed” to improving student access to housing both on and near campus. Susswein cited efforts to add capacity by replacing Creekside Residence Hall and building graduate housing on the east side, as well as the university’s purchase of a private West Campus housing complex at 2400 Nueces to convert it into 700 student beds.

“This is a long-term problem and the solution can’t be achieved immediately,” Susswein said. “But we recognize that Austin’s growth has limited housing options for today’s students more than ever before and we are committed to changing that.”

About 9,000 UT students live in university-owned housing, roughly 17 percent of the entire student body. J.B Bird, director of media relations at UT, told the Monitor that the university aims to increase that number, but is “severely constrained” by the development of the areas around campus.

Before stepping down as president, Greg Fenves brought on a private firm to look for opportunities for public-private partnerships with the goal of creating more affordable student housing. Bird said the consultant’s work is largely complete but the report has not yet been finalized. Fenves’ departure and Covid-19 have also shifted attention away from housing supply. “With the pandemic and bringing on a new president, we’ll just have to pick that up when we can get to it,” Bird said.

Affordability and mobility are both listed as targeted strategic outcomes of the new agreement. UT’s Gardner said the agreement will serve the common goals of advancing research, developing technologies and community-based solutions, showcasing the city as a forward-thinking community and creating career-defining opportunities to encourage UT students to stay in Austin after graduation.

“Having that master agreement makes it much more possible to do things, it saves a huge amount of staff time, it makes sure that we get performance results and other kinds of things,” said Alter. “This is not the only place where we have been innovating; it’s not sexy stuff but it’s really important for the functioning of the city.”

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