Student Housing, Decades of Biological Research Up in the Air
Brackenridge Tract Task Force recommends removing or relocating student housing and lab west of campus
The task force's report is the culmination of a debate that has raged for nearly a century over the fate of the tract, which was donated by former regent George Washington Brackenridge for "educational purposes." Much of the discussion over the future of the land has focused on Brackenridge's intent. The land was donated in 1910 for the purpose of creating a new main campus for UT, which found itself hemmed in by an expanding city in the face of a growing student body. Brackenridge's original vision for the land was to join his 500 acres with another 500 owned by the heirs of Texas Gov. Elisha Pease, but the Pease heirs eventually backed out. After Brackenridge's death, a plan to move the campus made it all the way to the Legislature but was killed in favor of expanding the existing campus. Deciding the tract had little use as a site for instructional facilities because of its distance from campus, plans were made to find alternative uses.
During the Sixties, the Board of Regents, through a series of legal judgments, removed many of the restrictions placed on the land by the original deed, paving the way for development and possible sale. At first, much of the land was used for university-related purposes such as housing for student families and graduate students, as well as a biological field lab. But as the city changed around the tract and its value increased, the UT System started seeing dollar signs. Little by little, the system began leasing out parts of the land for commercial use, which was further facilitated in 1989 by the Brackenridge Development Agreement. Since the agreement was first put into place, the university has raked in more than $25 million from leases.
Now, with the agreement set to expire in a little over a decade, the regents are mapping out the future of the tract. Over time, Brackenridge's intent has been subject to reinterpretation. Though he may have had classrooms in mind when he donated the land, the needs of the university have changed with diminishing state appropriations and rising instruction costs. "We have concluded that the Board of Regents should not be bound by previous uses. It's time for a new vision," said Larry Temple, chair of the task force.
But some, like nursing grad student and parent Bert Hoopes, liked the old vision better. Hoopes and his family live in student housing on the Brackenridge Tract, and they want to stay there. The task force recommended alternatives to housing on the tract, such as housing stipends or building new housing somewhere that isn't on top of a real-estate gold mine, but Hoopes contends the regents would be hard-pressed to find a new location for student housing that would be even close to comparable to his current home, which is near campus, safe, quiet, and has access to good schools like Mathews Elementary. "UT will get some money out of it I'm sure, but the people who will benefit from it will be a select few," Hoopes said. He added that, although the board has given residents chances to have their voices heard, he's not sure anyone's actually listening. "It seemed like they already had their minds made up."
Though the task force is clear in its recommendations that the golf course and student housing should go, it makes less definite recommendations about the future of the Brackenridge biological field lab. Talk of moving the lab met with resistance from College of Natural Sciences Dean Mary Ann Rankin and others, who insist it remain in the same location. Bob Jansen, director of the Section of Integrative Biology, which operates the lab, said even if a site were found that is similar in terms of location and biological diversity, a move would disrupt more than 40 years of site-specific work done on tracking species, such as deer and fire ants. "It would be like if the library on the main campus burned down," Jansen said. "Eventually you could replicate it, but you would have to start over from nothing."
A possible compromise could be to renovate the existing facilities to maximize the use of space so the size of the tract could be decreased without affecting work. The task force recommends that the board look into this further before taking any action.
For the full report, see www.utsystem.edu; the public is invited to give feedback at a Nov. 9 public hearing.