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Preserving Muny as a golf course is worth the effort

The future of the Austin’s Lions Municipal Golf Course, which sits on land the city leases from the University of Texas, hinges on what happens locally or at the Legislature. In this case, the better option for the golf course, also known Muny, is the one that preserves its nationally recognized history in the nation’s civil rights movement.

Preserving Muny pits two powerful interests against each other: the value Muny could generate financially if redeveloped versus its historic and community worth for generations to come.

Threatening its existence is the University of Texas System Board of Regents’ longtime consideration to lease the Muny site for a more lucrative mixed-use development project to the economic benefit of system’s flagship campus in Austin. That’s not the direction regents and University of Texas leadership should take.

Instead, University leaders should look to secure the preservation of the site’s historical integrity and its immeasurable value as an Austin open space. Ideally, that would take the form of a lease agreement that preserves the golf course in perpetuity. Consider that the city of Austin and the University of Texas have a long-term lease agreement that dates back to 1936 and expires in 2019. We are encouraged by ongoing conversations between Mayor Steve Adler and UT President Gregory L. Fenves regarding a new deal between the city and university.

However, those negotiations will have to be placed on a fast track to beat a ticking legislative clock. State lawmakers are proposing a measure to secure Muny’s future. That bill will be decided prior to May 29, when the regular legislative session ends.

Senate Bill 822, filed by state Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls) would transfer ownership of Muny from the University of Texas System to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Under the state’s watch, Muny would remain a golf course. This week, the Senate voted 21-10 to pass the bill and send it to the House, where it is predicted to receive a warm welcome, as the American-Statesman’s Ralph Haurwitz reported. Absent a fair and reasonable agreement between Austin and UT, SB 822 is a good option.

Muny, built in 1924 as Austin’s first public golf course, hasn’t changed much in the past six decades. The site still sits on 141 acres — or about 40 percent — of the 350-acre, university-owned Brackenridge Tract in West Austin. It remains among Austin’s most popular golf courses.

Without a doubt, Muny is a historical treasure in Austin’s backyard, as recognized by its listing last year on the National Register of Historic Places.

It is the site where two African-American boys defied Jim Crow laws when they took to Muny’s greens for a round of golf in early the 1950s. When that was called to his attention, Mayor Taylor Glass instructed that the boys be allowed to play. That event established Muny as the first public golf course to desegregate in the South. Total integration by the city of Austin would come much later.

We do understand the pressures the University of Texas faces as legislators continue to decrease state funding for higher education. However, leasing the site for mixed-use development could prove problematic. A 2008 city-sponsored report shows that the current Muny infrastructure could have limitations supporting a large development project. But even if university leaders found a way to make a project work, it would be the wrong solution.

It’s true the university has an obligation to its students — but it also has a public service component as part of its mission. UT officials should keep that in mind — along with the generosity of Austin and Travis County taxpayers who are helping finance the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas.

Consider, too, that open public spaces are increasingly endangered in the ever-more concrete landscapes of fast-growing cities like Austin. Muny, which offers visitors plenty of lush greens and heritage trees – including a tree-lined canopy entrance – provides respite.

Now is the time for University of Texas leaders to present a serious option that meets those goals. The City of Austin also must come to the table with an option that offers benefits to UT.

What is not reasonable? UT’s proposal to extend the lease for $6 million a year. That is far too expensive for Austin’s wallet. Currently, Austin leases the site for an annual fee of $497,664. Another bad idea: Only preserving the clubhouse and other features. That is far too cheap for Muny’s historic value.

Fortunately, those aren’t the only options.

Trading Muny for an unspecified city-owned land closer to campus — an idea that Fenves has been floating — might well have potential if the conditions are right for all involved.

With the regular session winding down, there is a short window for UT and the city to work out complicated terms. We urge them to forge ahead.

If UT is looking for a way to honor the Brackenridge Tract donor, support its students and work with the city as Fenves has said, then, it would be wise to heed the advice of Sen. Estes: “In this one space let’s not be greedy.”

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