- Associated Press - Friday, April 7, 2017

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Tucked between Lake Austin Boulevard and Lady Bird Lake, the University of Texas’ Brackenridge Field Laboratory consists of 82 acres of woods, greenhouses, classrooms and ponds.

The Austin American-Statesman (https://atxne.ws/2nKR8hK ) reports in 2009, when a consulting firm hired by the university’s governing board proposed downsizing or relocating the lab to make way for a mixed-use development, faculty members and administrators at the flagship campus rose up in opposition.

The biological field lab, they argued, is a jewel for teaching and research because of its long-running studies and its West Austin location just 3 miles from campus, close enough for faculty members and students to shuttle back and forth on a typical class day. That gives UT a competitive edge in recruiting faculty members in integrative biology, one of the university’s strongest disciplines. The UT System Board of Regents listened, voting unanimously in 2009 to retain the field lab as is.

Now, UT-Austin President Gregory L. Fenves is rethinking the future of the 50-year-old field lab at a time when he is also brainstorming about other parts of the university-owned, 350-acre Brackenridge Tract, including Lions Municipal Golf Course.

During a recent state Senate hearing, Fenves noted that alternative field lab locations had been considered several years ago, adding, “I’d like to continue to pursue looking at alternative locations.”

The notion of leasing the prime riverfront acreage to a developer of condominiums, offices, retail shops and so forth - with proceeds benefiting the campus - is sending ripples of concern through some quarters at UT.

“The university’s reputation is involved here,” said Lawrence Gilbert, a professor and director of the field lab who has conducted research there since the 1960s. “This is one thing we have that puts us a leg up on parallel competing universities.”

David Hillis, a professor and director of UT’s Biodiversity Center, agreed. “I think there’s no doubt that it’s an extraordinarily valuable resource,” he said. “It’s going to be difficult to replace it, but I don’t think that makes it impossible. There are different kinds of things that we do at the field lab and different sorts of places might be suitable for some of those and not for others.”

Still, relocating the lab would disrupt yearslong studies of fire ants, habitat change and other features of the site, Gilbert said. “You can put buildings someplace else and you can dig up an oak tree and move it, but you can’t dig up 82 acres unless engineers have knowledge of geology and mechanics that I don’t have,” he said.

The Brackenridge Tract was donated to UT in 1910 by George W. Brackenridge, a banker and regent. Brackenridge’s dream of moving the campus to the tract was never realized.

In addition to the field lab, the university has about 500 student apartments on the tract. Other portions have long been leased for a grocery store, restaurants, a marina, shops, an apartment complex and the headquarters of the Lower Colorado River Authority. Some of the leases don’t expire for many years.

Forty percent of the tract, 141 acres, has been leased to the city of Austin for Lions Municipal, also known as Muny, for decades. The lease expires in May 2019, but Fenves has suggested that it might be renewed if the city is willing to pay about $6 million a year in rent, a more than 10-fold increase that he says would approximate the property’s fair market lease value. The City Council isn’t likely to agree to such a sharp increase.

In his legislative testimony, Fenves also floated the possibility of a land swap, without mentioning any specific parcels UT might acquire from the city in exchange for conveying Muny to the city. A complicating factor is that state Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, has proposed legislation that would transfer Muny to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to keep it as a golf course.

“Proximity is really important for our educational mission, for our research mission,” the UT president testified. “And in that regard, we are talking with the city about potential trades and options that may be useful - that the university realizes the value of the (Muny) land but gets the value in other properties that are in closer proximity or will meet some of our direct needs.”

Mary Arnold, an environmental activist who wants to preserve Muny and the field lab, said she saw a conflict between Fenves‘ assertion that proximity is important and his interest in exploring alternative locations for the lab, which almost certainly would be much farther away from campus than 3 miles.

Back in 2009, New York-based architectural and urban planning firm Cooper, Robertson & Partners LLP recommended to the regents that they relocate the lab to McKinney Roughs, about 25 miles downstream on the Colorado River in Bastrop County. The firm regarded the Brackenridge lab’s valuable lake frontage as the “keystone” of a massive development project that would replace the lab, Muny and other areas with up to 8,700 housing units and 15 million square feet of retail, office, hotel, civic and other space.

Faculty members backed by Bill Powers and Steven Leslie, who were UT’s president and provost, respectively, pronounced the McKinney Roughs site unacceptable because of its distance from campus and its other uses, including horseback riding.

The American-Statesman requested an interview with Fenves but instead was given a prepared statement in which he said no change regarding the field lab is imminent.

“The university is focused right now on discussions with the city of Austin over the site of Lions Municipal Golf Course,” the UT president said in the statement. “I have a responsibility to look at the use of the complete Brackenridge Tract, including the field laboratory. The Board of Regents voted in 2009 to retain the field laboratory at its present location but recommended to review best uses of the site periodically. I will continue to pursue that goal. There are no immediate plans for a change to the field laboratory - any change considered now would be made years in the future, in keeping with the best interests of the university.”

University officials wouldn’t say what, if any, alternative sites are under consideration. UT spokesman J.B. Bird noted that the regents’ unanimous vote in 2009 included a provision recommending that officials confirm “every 10 years that the laboratory is still the best use of the property.” In other words, Bird said, the regents “foresaw the idea of recurring re-evaluation.”

Fenves made much in his testimony of honoring the intent of Brackenridge’s land gift - which the regent declared in the first sentence of the deed to be “advancing and promoting University education.” The only education and research taking place on the Brackenridge Tract is at the field lab. Why, then, would the university consider ending the singular activity that directly fulfills the donor’s intent?

“There are many potential ways the property can honor the donor’s intent of advancing and promoting university education,” Bird said, “and reviewing the laboratory is consistent with the regents’ direction from 2009.”

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Information from: Austin American-Statesman, https://www.statesman.com


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