ACC Goes Back to the Drawing Board

Plans for new South Austin Campus bust the college's budget

Only a month after breaking ground on its new South Austin Campus at Stassney and Manchaca, ACC will completely redesign the campus in an effort to stay within its $21 million budget.
Only a month after breaking ground on its new South Austin Campus at Stassney and Manchaca, ACC will completely redesign the campus in an effort to stay within its $21 million budget. (Photo By John Anderson)

Barely a month after breaking ground on a new campus in South Austin, Austin Community College announced it had reached a wee bit of an impasse – all the construction bids came in a good $5 million over the $21 million the college had budgeted for the building. Was it because of the rising price of oil? The building boom in China stressing world steel supplies? No one really knows, but one thing is certain: ACC now has to literally go back to the drawing board and totally redesign the building.

That means tossing architectural and engineering work that initially cost nearly $1 million. It means the campus will not be ready by fall 2005, as anticipated. But it also gives the Faculty Senate, whose relations with the administration have rarely been rosy, a chance to reiterate its continued opposition to the site.

"We're asking them to stop and really study whether they want to proceed with that campus," said Faculty Senate President Daniel Traverso, who read a resolution opposing continued work on the site at the ACC board of trustees meeting Tuesday night. He explained that the faculty supported the idea of a South Austin Campus, but that the closed Albertsons supermarket on the corner of Stassney and Manchaca, which the college purchased last year for $2.2 million, was too small to ever be viable.

However, the South Austin residents who mobilized for the campus say the site has a lot going for it. The South Austin Campus Advisory Committee, a volunteer group that advises the board of trustees on plans for the campus, initially suggested the Albertsons site based on its proximity to high schools and public transportation.

"I personally wanted kids from Crockett and Travis [high schools] to see ACC in their neighborhood and that they could continue their education beyond high school," said Guadalupe Sosa, head of the committee (and candidate for ACC trustee in the election just past). She explained that building near high schools – the South Austin Campus site is directly across the street from Crockett – would encourage students to take advantage of ACC dual-credit programs that smooth the transition to college. Demographic studies also showed that the site was convenient to a large number of the roughly 25% of ACC students who live in South Austin, and for whom the closest existing ACC site is the Pinnacle Campus in Oak Hill.

Sosa admits that the site is small. However, in order to afford a larger site, the college would have had to look on the outskirts of South Austin, where land is cheaper. This, Sosa says, would have prevented the campus from meeting the goals of being centrally located and easily accessible by public transportation. She says the Faculty Senate's continued opposition is disappointing. "I suppose they feel ACC is spending money on the South Austin Campus that they need to be spending somewhere else," she said.

That's a pretty good guess. The faculty got a raise last year, bringing them up to the state average. However, many continue to argue that Austin's high cost of living, plus the many higher education institutions competing for their talent, mean ACC should offer compensation that is above average. Traverso confirms that this makes faculty particularly sensitive about the college wasting money. But he says it's not just himself and other faculty he's worried about – even though construction costs are covered by the bond package voters approved last year, expenses like furniture, equipment, and staffing are not, and that hurts everyone.

"Campuses that are already underfunded and understaffed, and scrounging to fill new ones will only make it worse," said Traverso. He hypothesized that the proposal for a South Austin Campus had more to do with turning out South Austin voters to support an increase in ACC property taxes last year, rather than any real educational need.

Nevertheless, the college has no plans to abandon the site. Bronson Dorsey, ACC's VP in charge of facilities, says the college will probably just ditch its hopes for a cutting-edge, energy-efficient building. The original, now-too-expensive design featured three separate wings connected by outdoor walkways. It was a plan that would have cut long-term utility costs by maximizing natural light and minimizing indoor circulation space (i.e., hallways that need to be lit and climate-controlled). New plans will probably feature a more traditional design that sacrifices long-term savings for lower up-front costs. "We're looking at a more compact design where the circulation is inside the building, and hoping we can get the project closer to the budget without sacrificing programmatic uses," said Dorsey.

As plans move ahead, the South Austin Campus Advisory Committee members say they hope they will be included in every step of the process. But despite the upheaval the redesign will surely entail, committee member Jeff Jack says he believes the college is doing all it can to move ahead. "We wish it wasn't slowing down, but we'd rather have a quality project than to rush this," he said.

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Austin Community College, ACC, South Austin Campus, Stassney Lane, Manchaca Road, Crockett High School, Guadalupe Sosa, Faculty Senate, Daniel Traverso

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