ACC South Austin: Plain, Weird, or Just Plain Weird?

Board spends $1.1 million on architecture fees and gets a Kleenex box

South Austinites are still waiting for an ACC campus 
at this site, and may have to wait a little longer.
South Austinites are still waiting for an ACC campus at this site, and may have to wait a little longer. (Photo By John Anderson)

It's ugly.

That's the one thing everyone can agree on regarding the newly unveiled design for Austin Community College's planned South Austin campus. All else, it seems, is open for debate. Does the featureless cube most resemble a prison? A grocery store? A Kleenex box? Consensus is elusive. And just as elusive is consensus on what to do now with a plan that most agree has exactly one redeeming quality: It's within the $21 million budget.

"All of us would like to see a facility that is open and functioning," said Richard Cilley, who serves on the South Austin Campus Advisory Committee. "The question is, how ugly do you want it to be?"

The ugly plainness of The Box just didn't pass 
muster with ACC board members or would-be 
The ugly plainness of "The Box" just didn't pass muster with ACC board members or would-be neighbors.

The uproar over the design (or lack thereof) is merely the latest hitch in a protracted four-year planning process. The school bought the land in 2002, and in May 2003 voters passed the bond issue to fund construction, but SACAC members complain that ACC took too long to get going on the designs. When the first set of plans finally came in last summer, construction estimates on the avant-garde, energy-efficient building came in a whopping $5 million over budget. The plans were scrapped, and the architects started working on a simpler (and smaller) design. The planned curriculum was therefore also simplified, as ACC jettisoned plans for an "anchor program" in music and commercial music while they downsized the building from 122,000 to 86,000 square feet.

What remains is a simple brick box with all the utilitarian glamour of a Soviet-bloc housing project, with only 16 classrooms and eight labs. The reduced size, and the lack of an anchor program, will mean that many students will have to travel across town to complete their degree or certificate programs, largely undermining the purpose of a South Austin campus. This is one of many things that frustrates SACAC member Guadalupe Sosa, who ran for the ACC board last year. "When I was running for the board, one thing students mentioned was that they didn't think it was right to have to run across town for different classes," she said. "They would like to see most of the classes they need at one campus."

While Sosa is unhappy with The Box ("I could have designed something like that"), she's willing to accept it more or less as is: What matters to her is that the building not become any smaller, and that the campus open as soon as possible. The SACAC will come up with an official recommendation for action at their meeting this week. However, some members think getting it done right is as important as getting it done fast.

At this point, the ACC trustees basically have three options. They can build The Box. They can spruce up The Box in relatively simple ways, such as by tinkering with brick patterns or the entranceways. Or, they could try to find extra funds to dispense with The Box entirely and build something that feels more like a campus and less like a cut-rate office park. When the plans were unveiled for the board, trustee Veronica Rivera indicated she's open to the idea of sacrificing some programmatic elements if it means a more collegiate design – if that's what the community wants. "I don't live in South Austin, but I know many people in South Austin pride themselves in the weirdness, the uniqueness of Austin," Rivera said. "If we need to reduce some of the classrooms or classes that we promised, I think this is something we may want to discuss."

But another issue that needs discussion is how to keep the comedy of errors from repeating itself the next time ACC decides to build. As Austin grows, ACC is likely to try to annex outlying areas into the taxing district; those students will have to attend class somewhere. And in building classrooms to accommodate them, Cilley says ACC needs to overhaul its planning process. Based on his construction experience, Cilley believes the problem lies in poor communication between the architects designing the building and the construction manager at-risk, who determines a "guaranteed maximum price" for the project. Each time the campus was designed, Cilley says, the construction manager waited too long before getting a GMP. Construction documents for The Box, for example, were 75% complete before the board even saw an architect's rendering, and that was a week before the submission of subcontractor bids, which the construction manager uses to come up with a GMP. "Because the project was allowed to continue without getting a guaranteed maximum price, we've been off in this la-la land where we had a project, but we never had a project we could afford to build," Cilley said.

But Ben Ferrell, ACC's vice president for business services, says it makes sense to let the architects make mostly complete drawings before getting bids: Because construction managers must guarantee that they can meet the GMP, if they bid too early they naturally pad their estimate to cover any surprises that might show up in the finished drawings. "If you force someone to guess the future, they'll put extra money in it to protect themselves," he said.

Nevertheless, the board has called for the heads of the architects and construction managers, who have been invited to the Feb. 7 meeting. "I think they need to hear the level of dissatisfaction on this board with spending $1.1 million in architectural fees and getting this," said board chair Barbara Mink. But having vented, the board also needs to figure out what to do next: whether to sacrifice form to function, or to make South Austin wait a little longer still for their long-promised campus.

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Austin Community CollegeACC, Austin Community College, South Austin campus, Guadalupe Sosa, Richard Cilley, Barbara Mink, Ben Ferrell, South Austin Campus Advisory Committee

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