Affordability was high on the minds of community members who went to a meeting Thursday night about one of the last big developments to come to downtown Austin: the University Medical Center Brackenridge hospital campus.
The 14.3-acre site at 15th and Red River streets is owned by the board of Central Health, the Travis County agency charged with providing health care to low-income and uninsured residents.
The site will be available for redevelopment after Seton Healthcare Family, which operates the hospital campus for Central Health on a long-term, $34 million-a-year lease, relocates hospital operations to the new Dell Seton Medical Center at the University of Texas set to open in May.
Central Health will continue to own the land and plans to lease it out long-term to developers. The build-out will be done in phases over the next 15 to 25 years or so.
A master plan created by Gensler, an architectural and design firm, and approved by the Central Health board last January, envisions a high-density, mixed-use site with as much as 3.7 million square feet of new development. The plan calls for buildings ranging from 35 to 40 stories.
While the types of uses are still up in the air, Central Health officials say they plan to include a “public marketplace” at the center of the campus with local, open-stall food vendors and space for community activities. Possible elements include an open-air dining area, food culture center where cooking classes could be held and a civic innovation center.
About 75 people attended the community update meeting Central Health held Thursday night.
Juan Garza, Central Health’s vice president of finance and development, explained that the agency’s next goal is to obtain a zoning overlay from the city of Austin that would delineate uses, site development regulations and design criteria for the site.
The agency also aims to select a developer by the fall, Garza said.
The city’s Planning Commission is expected to hold hearings in the coming months on the zoning overlay, and the Austin City Council is expected to hold a hearing in the spring.
At least one City Council member has concerns about the affordability of residential and commercial units in the development, a sentiment that was echoed by many others at Thursday’s meeting.
Council Member Ora Houston said she would like to see housing for low-wage workers, short-term units set aside for family members of hospital patients and opportunities for minority contractors and small businesses.
Houston also said she wasn’t sold on Central Health’s request for unlimited density on the site.
“We’ve got to have a public benefit to be able to do what they’re asking us to do, and I haven’t heard that public benefit,” Houston said. “We’re talking about a whole lot of entitlements for this development, and a public market just doesn’t seem to balance out.”
The master plan includes a mission to partner with affordable housing providers, but it’s too soon to tell how it will be incorporated into the project, if at all.
Central Health’s former president and chief executive officer, Patricia Young Brown, told the American-Statesman last year that while affordable housing was a goal among many, it is not the agency’s “direct mission.”
Jill Ramirez, vice president of the local chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said the design plans seemed to her like a “rich man’s playground.” Preliminary renderings of the public market presented at Thursday’s meeting depict what appears to be an upscale coffee bar and other modern-looking shops that Ramirez said reminded her of Whole Foods.
She said she worried that the development would lead to more displacement of low-income residents away from downtown.
Ramirez said she also had concerns about the cost of the project taking away money that could be used directly for health care services for low-income and uninsured people. It’s still too early to tell whether Central Health will invest in the development or pick a development partner who would front those costs.
“I just feel skeptical at this point that there’s a lot of real benefit to the community, and I’m not sold on it,” she said.
Others cited similar concerns about affordability but were more optimistic. Austin residents Chris Krager and Roland Galang stood around a model of the proposed development at Thursday’s meeting, imagining the possibilities for the six-block area.
“I think the question would be how it’s realized and who it actually serves, and it’s probably a little premature to say what that will look like,” said Krager, an architect who lives near the campus. “The idea that it would be kind of for everyone and serve a broad cross-section of people — it’d be nice for that to happen. They just have to put mechanisms in place that would ensure that that would happen.”
Nic Moe, a master’s student at the University of Texas’ School of Public Health, said he liked the project and Central Health’s vision for increasing physical activity and access to nutrition through the development, such as by featuring healthy foods in the market and integrating bike-friendly, walkable streets. Under the plan, the campus would be opened up by realigning and extending Red River Street through the property and connecting Sabine Street north to 15th Street with pedestrian-only access.
“Who that targets and who benefits from that, I think, is really important,” he said. “It seems like (Central Health is) aware of that, which is really positive. So it’ll be interesting to see as the project moves along how will they actually make sure it’s not the typical Whole Foods crowd and everything, but it’s other parts of the community that live there (and) work there.”