The University of Texas and its Board of Regents have a huge responsibility awaiting them: what to do with the Brackenridge tract.
The tract is a parcel of prime land in Austin deeded to the University of Texas by George W. Brackenridge in 1910. It encompasses 368 acres and is bordered by Enfield Road, Exposition Boulevard and Lady Bird Lake. Lions Municipal Golf Course occupies about half of the area. The other half includes the 84-acre UT field laboratory, student housing, and other commercial and residential structures with leases from the university.
In 2008, the Board of Regents hired the New York firm Cooper Robertson and Partners to develop two conceptual master plans, which were presented to the board in June 2009. The master plans were very similar in concept; their main difference was that one proposed to preserve the lab and the other one did not. The board did not follow up with any specific approval or timetable but approved in 2011 to allow the lease with the city of Austin for the golf course to expire at the end of its term, in May 2019.
The future of the Brackenridge tract is a matter of great importance for Austin as much as it is for the University of Texas. It is uncommon for cities to encounter land development opportunities with the kind of potential that this tract holds for Austin. There are three specific reasons.
First, the land is huge and clean. The tract covers an area comparable to Austin’s downtown (about 170 city blocks), is not polluted and has valuable assets, such as mature trees, a gentle topography and 1.63 miles of Lady Bird Lake’s shoreline.
Second, the land is in a prime location. The tract is just west of downtown, with easy access to MoPac Boulevard and West Lake Hills. It is surrounded by some of the most attractive residential neighborhoods in Austin, has very good schools nearby, and is connected to Lady Bird Lake and its system of parks and trails.
Third, a single owner, which happens to be a public research university, owns the land. Brackenridge’s specific request that the “land be used for the benefit of the university” invested UT’s leaders with a great responsibility. Though the tract offers an opportunity for UT to reap financial benefits, UT is not a developer and should not be looking at the tract like a “normal” developer. The leadership of our university must embrace the Brackenridge tract as an opportunity to further the university’s research and educational agenda at many levels while creating a model neighborhood for all the citizens of Austin to enjoy.
With this in mind, last spring I directed an advanced urban design studio at UT’s School of Architecture. The goal of the studio was to explore new models of development and test them with specific proposals for the Brackenridge tract. The results of the studio included five different master plans, offering a range of refreshing alternative ideas to Cooper Robertson’s master plans.
The work of the studio has been compiled in a book, which I have sent to each regent. I wrote as well, in no particular order, 10 inspirational goals for the development of the tract with the hope that, together with the book, they will broaden the board’s views for the future of the Brackenridge tract:
• Aim high. Don’t let developers decide what works based on comparable developments.
• Think big when planning public infrastructure. The size of the development can handle upfront investments.
• Design a dense, family-oriented housing typology as a viable alternative to the single-family house for families raising children.
• Advance UT’s research agenda and cement Austin’s green reputation. Make this site a model for sustainable design practices.
•Engage UT’s brainpower. If we can change the world, we can change the Brackenridge tract.
•Create accessible public space. Expand the chains of parks along Lady Bird Lake and make it an amenity for the entire city.
•Respect Brackenridge’s request: Benefit the university. Don’t limit this to “We sell; we benefit the university with the money we make.”
•Preserve the UT field lab and expand it with an interpretative center to learn about research conducted at UT.
•Include a variety of housing types (students and faculty, seniors and low-income families). Diversity makes for vibrant communities.
•Embrace innovation in programing, planning and financing. Don’t settle for short-term gains. This is a long-term project and deserves forward thinking.
Miró is an award-winning architect and distinguished professor at the University of Texas.