Colonel George Brackenridge donated the Brackenridge Tract to the University of Texas in 1910 “for the purpose of advancing and promoting University education.” It is a beautiful 350-acre piece of land in a prime location in West Austin. For more than 100 years, and without a master plan in place, UT has used parts of the land for research and student housing and has leased more than half of the land for a variety of uses. The 141-acre Lions Municipal Golf Course (known as Muny), leased by the city of Austin since 1936, occupies the biggest parcel. The lease expires in 2019, and a Task Force appointed by UT’s Board of Regents recommended in 2007 against renewing the lease.
Senate Bill 822 proposes to unilaterally transfer ownership of the golf course land from the UT System to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The bill’s authors — senators from Wichita Falls, Houston and Dallas — consider Muny a “civic asset” in “a gorgeous setting” with a place in civil rights history, and argue that dispossessing UT of Muny is the best way to guarantee that the land will continue to be used as a golf course.
SB 822 completely ignores the legal and ethical obligations to honor Brackenridge’s clear mandate to use the tract to benefit UT. In addition, the proposal will reduce the Brackenridge Tract by 40 percent and will greatly limit UT’s ability to develop a comprehensive master plan: a forward-thinking vision that can benefit UT and the entire city of Austin by transforming the site into a more significant civic asset than it is now, preserve its gorgeous setting, and serve as a model of civil rights ideals.
We acknowledge the role Muny played in desegregating Austin, as the first golf course open to African Americans in the city. However, there are options for honoring this history that are more meaningful than maintaining this enormous piece of land for the exclusive use of golfers. For example, what if the club house became the first Museum of Housing Segregation in Texas? Such a museum could tell the history of Muny’s desegregation in the context of the systematic discrimination going on at the same time in Austin, where African Americans were barred from residing in West Austin through segregationist zoning laws and restrictive covenants. Today, as Austin’s growth continues, it is distressing that the city is losing its black population. In the end, we can think of no better way to strike a blow against the continuing legacy of Jim Crow segregation than to build a truly diverse and affordable new community in West Austin.
It is natural for many to advocate leaving Muny and the tract alone. We would agree completely if the challenges of fulfilling UT’s mission were different. Unfortunately, things have changed a great deal even in the last 10 years: UT now finds itself in a city suffering an affordability crisis even as the Legislature continues to cut financial support to the university.
Compared to other metropolitan regions, Austin has an unusually high concentration of jobs in its central core, many of them at UT. While generally beneficial, in the case of Austin it is problematic because, despite the city’s continuous growth, the central core has not accommodated more people due to current zoning laws. As a result, long-term residents are being priced out and forced to move away from the city.
Faculty and especially staff are beleaguered by spiraling housing costs and stagnant public university salaries. UT is struggling to recruit the best faculty and students to fulfill Gov. Greg Abbott’s pledge “of ensuring that we elevate some of Texas’s elite colleges and universities into the top 10 nationally.”
At UT, we have worked for several years with students from planning, urban design, architecture, historic preservation and business programs to explore the possibilities for the Brackenridge Tract, and the most compelling ideas involve housing. If developed appropriately and not sold off in piecemeal fashion, it can accomodate enough affordable housing to make a difference. Because of its superb location and 1.6 miles of lake frontage, it would be possible to develop high-end market-rate homes that cross-subsidize truly affordable housing. Using a varied mix of housing types for seniors, families and students, it can become a model neighborhood with ample room for green space and amenities for the new residents, surrounding neighbors, and with connections to the existing hike and bike trail network, the city as a whole.
We urge the university’s leadership and state legislators to oppose Senate Bill 822. However, even assuming that this particular attempt to dispossess the university of its historic gift from Brackenridge fails, it is all too likely that there will be future efforts to do the same. The best answer is for UT to work with all due haste with the city of Austin to develop a comprehensive plan for the Brackenridge Tract that helps secure a triple win for the university, its employees and students, and Austin.
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