Growing Pains Hit West Campus

Area's utilities systems weren't built to support rapid development taking place

Growing Pains Hit West Campus
Photo by John Anderson

"Go west, young man!" is not the kind of thing most West Campus housing developers want to hear. The problem is not so much the west part, as a matter of scale. They'd be more agreeable to "Go west, young men and women, in droves, and pack thyselves into any one of our high-density luxury units!" A belief in a kind of student-housing manifest destiny has overcome the neighborhood, with more multistory blocks of apartments going up all the time. Trouble is, the West Campus utilities infrastructure – especially water – was never built to support such rapid development and hasn't been updated in years. And the neighbors are starting to catch on.

"There is water running down the street all the time," said West Campus resident Tracie Donnelly, who has lived in the neighborhood for six years. She's concerned about a new Block development at 22nd and Pearl streets, completed last year, where water must be constantly pumped out of an underground parking garage, rain or shine. The developers said they hit groundwater while building the property. "I thought it would stop once it was finished," said Donnelly, but the water continues to run.

It's likely this won't be the last time the issue arises. Groundwater levels are hard to predict, and many new developments will have underground parking garages. The drainage system in the Block's underground garage is fairly typical. Groundwater flowing into the garage is collected in a French drain, a kind of ditch, and into a sump pump, an apparatus commonly found in basements and other underground spaces. The water is then deposited into a detention pond that sits at curb level and flows out into the street through a curbside pipe – where it collects because it has nowhere to go due to a lack of adequate street contouring, according to Mike Mahone, a real estate consultant and mediator for the neighborhood developers. He says the water flow wouldn't be an issue if the overall infrastructure weren't so screwed up. Groundwater is a common problem, he says; basements all over the world use this kind of pump system, and it works 99% of the time when the water has somewhere to go. The real problem, he said, "The infrastructure of this area has been neglected forever."

A representative for West Campus housing developers and a city water official have said they are trying to work together to fix the problem. One hindrance is that the West Cam­pus population turns over every four years, and residents are more likely to be more worried about a chem test than the water pressure in the decades-old pipes that run beneath their apartments. Few people advocate for these kinds of hyperlocal issues, resulting in the kind of neglect seen in West Campus. "If [students] voted in local elections," said Mahone, "their tax money would be spent with their input in mind."

Whether residents like it or not, public funds will probably have to be spent to solve problems generated by private developers, like the groundwater issue at the Block property. Utility restructuring and additions are needed throughout the area, and there's no quick or easy fix. It will require collaboration. "In a perfect world and hopefully in the future, we're looking at a separate effort [from developers and the city]," said the city's assistant director of watershed protection, Nancy McClintock. But for now, the area around the Block doesn't even have an adequate storm sewer. McClintock said the city is looking for "creative solutions" to the Block issue, like using the water for fountains or landscaping, noting that "even if there was some kind of storm sewer system there, I don't know if it would be sufficient."

The housing development boom follows a controversial 2001 change in zoning laws allowing for high-density apartment buildings, led in part by Mahone, who says 35 new projects have gone up over the past four years alone. Mahone believes the increased development is good for the University of Texas, which benefits from easily scheduled classes and higher graduation rates when students can stay closer to campus.

Still, some longtime neighborhood residents don't appreciate the swift influx of cookie-cutter student housing. "It's just changed the whole vibe over here," lamented Donnelly, who rents a 100-year-old home on San Gabriel. "This water thing is a real bummer." Donnelly says she used to have a view of the UT Tower before the apartments near her home went in. "They disconnected me from this piece of history and then started wrecking my street," she said. "I hate to see it neglected."

But West Campus residents will simply have to continue to wait for improvements, even as the potential for trouble from new development grows.

If such rapid construction continues, and all signs indicate it will, especially with developer-friendly incentives in place for high-density housing, West Campus' utility infrastructure will have to be totally updated, and that takes time. "This is ... a problem we're going to see increasing," McClintock admits. "It's not trivial." She said city officials and developers are meeting in early April to continue their search for solutions. But she warned residents it would likely be months before they started to see changes, adding, "We're still getting our arms around this."

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West Campus, Tracie Donnelly, underground parking garages, Mike Mahone, Nancy McClintock

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