The Austin Chronicle

Naked City

Thinking Inside the Box – With Pig

By Rachel Proctor May, February 11, 2005, News

The Box is coming to South Austin. No, not another home improvement store, but the long-planned and long-delayed South Austin campus of Austin Community College. The ACC Board of Trustees on Monday gave its go-ahead to build the campus that inspired mockery and horror when its design was unveiled at their last meeting. But while they are allowing The Box to move forward, trustees also asked ACC President Robert Aguero to look for extra funds – probably about an extra half-million or so – to try to pretty up the exterior of the building, which will be a boring brick cube with tiny slits for windows, described by one trustee as "yucky."

The board's decision was the culmination of a process that has dragged on for four years. After buying land for the building in 2001, it took until 2003 to pass a bond issue to pay for construction, budgeted for $21 million. But the architect's first plan – an airy, super neat-o design with multiple wings and lots of natural light – had to be scrapped when it came in $5 million over budget in June 2004. Now, while no one is happy about The Box – Monday's meeting was at times barely civil – the trustees' go-ahead means that barring further delay, it can open by the fall semester of 2006.

In the meantime, everyone has someone to blame. Members of the South Austin Campus Advisory Committee complained that the architects, Page Southerland Page, had ignored them in the design process. When PSP did meet with the SACAC, they said, it was not to collaborate, but to present completed plans and say, "Voilá." "All along we've been saying we want to give you input. We want to be involved," said SACAC member Guadalupe Sosa. "Somehow that message was lost."

As a demonstration of how a collaborative design process could work to sift design ideas before spending $1.1 million in architect's fees, Richard Cilley of the SACAC presented a stack of drawings with names like the "Crate & Barrel" design or the "Southwestern Maya Pyramid" design – the committee's ideas for aesthetic improvements to the building's exterior.

However, PSP representatives charged that the fault lay with the college. After all, ACC trustees decided on the $21 million budget before putting serious research into designing their dream project. According to Larry Speck of PSP, trustees simply didn't budget enough money for its dream building, demanded of them the impossible, and then got huffy when PSP couldn't deliver a miracle. Matt Kreisle of PSP added that they had told ACC staff that they couldn't build the desired building within that budget, but were ignored. "We were told to just make it work," he said. To make matters worse, costs for building materials, especially steel, have jumped dramatically over the last few years, meaning the college can afford a little less with each passing month.

The one glimmer of good news came in the final construction bids, completed last week, which put the building $350,000 under budget. Speck said PSP would devote the savings to adding "life and excitement" to the outside of The Box. However, he reiterated that the real problem was that ACC had simply tried to do too much with too stingy a budget.

"We're putting lipstick on a pig," said Speck. "This is still a really cheap building."

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