June 8, 2008
Is it an urban oasis or a prime real estate opportunity? A vibrant family neighborhood or an under‐utilized stretch of lakefront property? With stakeholders representing a range of overlapping and competing interests, probably one thing all sides can agree on is that the University of Texas at Austin’s Brackenridge Tract is a jewel. Whether that jewel is best left alone, or developed, or partly developed, is the focus of a study commissioned by the university’s Board of Regents. The Regents have hired Cooper, Robertson & Partners LLP, of New York, to produce a minimum of two master plans by June 2009.
Longtime regent Col. George W. Brackenridge deeded 503 acres to the university in 1910 in the hope that one day it would serve as the main campus for the growing institution. Instead, the university expanded closer to its original campus but continued to maintain what came to be called the Brackenridge Tract to serve the educational purposes of the university, as stipulated in the deed. Over the years, sections of the tract have been leased, sold, and developed into student housing and research facilities. In 2006, in response to legislative pressures, the Board of Regents formed a Task Force to consider anew the best and highest uses of the remaining Brackenridge tract acreage. The Task Force, chaired by Larry E. Temple, reported back to the Regents in October 2007. The Task Force made a number of recommendations, including that the use of 74 acres for university student housing did not meet the standard of “best and highest use” of the land. The Task Force report goes on to ask:
Is it strategically important to the University to offer graduate student and family housing assistance? If so, should the University provide such housing assistance through financial assistance or actual housing? If providing actual housing serves the University’s mission, that housing can and should be relocated to an appropriate site. The Task Force recognizes that there will be costs associated with relocation of the housing and TAB recommends that the master planning process include the relocation costs in its analysis (Task Force, 2007, p. 33).
As recommended by the Task Force, the Regents hired a highly regarded master planning firm, Cooper, Robertson, which has worked in a similar capacity for Harvard, Yale, Johns Hopkins, and MIT. The Cooper team has begun a series of meetings with stakeholders. The stakeholders include residents of University Apartments, the biological field labs, representatives from surrounding neighborhoods, Lion’s Municipal Golf Course, West Austin Youth Association (WAYA), the City of Austin, the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), which leases land for its headquarters complex, and businesses that also operate on leased property.
For residents of University Apartments, there is concern for the possible loss of their individual housing units, but also the loss of a vibrant neighborhood. Once restricted to married students, the apartments are now open to students at all levels. The students themselves have paid for University Apartments which is fully funded through its own rental income. To be eligible to live in the apartments, a student must have a dependent (spouse or child), or a single student can share a unit with a roommate, who must also be a student. While the units are modest and lack such amenities as dishwashers, demand for these affordable units is high. Currently, there are as many students on the waiting list as there are apartments. About half of applicants on the wait list are single students, an indication of unmet housing needs in Austin’s booming real estate market.
As many as 70% of residents are international graduate students, many with spouses and children who benefit from the unique set of support services that have developed to serve this diverse community. For example, Mathews Elementary, the primary school serving children living in University Apartments, has assembled staff and programs to serve the community. Mathews offers bilingual programs in Spanish, Chinese, and Korean. It has Pre‐K and literacy programs that help students succeed in school. Its volunteer‐led Prime Time English Conversation classes provide practice in English conversation to parents and community members. The school’s diversity is celebrated annually in an International Day Parade of Nations featuring students showcasing their country of origin or ethnic background.
The apartments can be a significant tool in recruiting graduate and international students. Some academic departments and colleges actively publicize University Apartments in their recruiting programs. For international students, who have limited opportunities for employment in this country, the apartments’ affordability can be a deciding factor in choosing to come to UT.
In addition to providing a community of peers, the apartments are located in a good neighborhood appropriate for raising children. Neighborhoods closer to the university, where many single undergraduate students live, are not compatible with family needs. The proximity of University Apartments to shopping, schools, parks, and other amenities, as well as good bus services and hike and bike trails, makes it possible to live and raise a family without the expense of a car. The apartments are located in park‐like surroundings that support many large trees and open, green expanses. Occupying environmentally sensitive space on the Colorado River, University Apartments residents and managers have been good stewards of the land and support activities that leave a light footprint. For example, many students take advantage of university shuttle buses to get to campus. Similarly dense housing that was not restricted to students would be certain to generate significantly more traffic along the already congested corridors of
Lake Austin Boulevard, Cesar Chavez, and West 5th and 6th Streets. As Austin, like other cities, promotes denser housing that is walking distance to amenities and where people are likely to take public transportation or ride bicycles, residents of University Apartments are already living the New Urbanism lifestyle.
Through its representatives on the Tenant Advisory Board (TAB), student residents of University Apartments are fully engaged in monitoring and participating in the ongoing planning for the Brackenridge Tract. They are coordinating and communicating with other stakeholders to ensure they are aware and prepared. Many residents recognize they occupy highly desirable property. They recognize that the Regents have a fiduciary responsibility to consider the bigger picture and long-term interests of the university in making their decisions about the tract. But residents also realize that this place is more than a collection of modest multi‐unit housing buildings. Today’s residents are only the most recent cohort to have found that their affordable housing was part of a treasured community. Preserving this community, and the services that support it, takes on new urgency as the master planning process works toward its 2009 delivery date, which, coincidentally, is when the lease is up for the land occupied by Colorado Apartments.
Board of Regents, University of Texas System website (2008). Brackenridge Tract. Retrieved June 7, 2008 from http://www.utsystem.edu/BOR/bracktract.htm.
Collier, Kiah (2008).
Future of Brackenridge Tract still murky after UT Regents’ meeting. The
Daily Texan, December 12, 2007.
Haurwitz, Ralph, K. M. (2008). UT regents sign $5.1 million Brackenridge contract Company to handle planning for tract also made plans for Harvard and Yale.
Austin American‐Statesman, May 15, 2008.
Mathews Elementary School (2008). Campus Facts, Accomplishments 2007‐2008. Retrieved June 8, 2008 from http://www.austinisd.org/schools/website.phtml?id=081.
Real Estate Office, University of Texas System website (2008).
Update on RFQ for Master Planning Services for the Brackenridge Tract. Retrieved June 7, 2008 from http://www.utsystem.edu/reo/homepage.html.
Task Force, University of Texas System website (2007). Brackenridge Tract Task Force Report. Retrieved June 8, 2008 from http://www.utsystem.edu/BOR/files/bracktract/report.pdf.
University Apartments website. Eligibility & Rates. Retrieved on June 8, 2008 from
University Apartments and the Future of the Brackenridge Tract_pdf
Coalition of Stakeholders in the Brackenridge Tract_pdf