Local Group Has High Hopes for Plan-it-arium
Stars aligning for an Austin science museum
The Austin Planetarium group has spent the last decade trying to get a science and technology museum built. Now the local charity has joined forces with construction firm KUD International to pitch the educational project and tourist attraction as part of a mixed-use development near the capitol.
Austin is the only one of America's 50 largest cities without a planetarium, and the group has been eyeing the block at the southeast corner of MLK and Congress for years to rectify that omission (see "Stars Aligning in Planetarium's Favor," Nov. 6, 2009). The lot currently provides surface parking for state employees, but Austin Planetarium Executive Director Torvald Hessel has always envisioned it as the last key to a fully fledged museum district, with the Blanton Museum of Art to the north and the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum to the west. The group's plan remains basically unchanged: to construct a combined planetarium, science museum, and technology center in the heart of Austin.
What this latest plan does is convert that dream into the hub of a $240 million mixed-use development, standing in the shadow of a new, 47-story residential tower. That's where KUD International comes in: The firm specializes in mixed-use projects based around cultural landmarks like aquariums and stadiums, especially projects where an institution has struggled to find funding to break ground. The planetarium group has already secured $30 million of the $95 million needed for its share of the project. Hessel noted that KUD has a long history of working with its partner nonprofits to secure funding, so this project fits KUD's portfolio well. He said, "It needs to be difficult, it needs to be grand, and it needs to be a game-changer for the city involved."
The nonprofit has been in long-term discussions with the Texas Facilities Commission, but three key pieces recently fell into place. First, the commission began planning to turn the area around the capitol complex into a mixed-use development zone (see "A Capitol Idea? The Capitol Complex Meets the Downtown Austin Plan," May 21, 2010). Second, the Legislature changed the rules so the commission could start accepting unsolicited proposals. And finally, KUD International started looking for a public-private partnership project in Austin. Austin Planetarium sent its proposal to the state on May 26 and hopes to make a formal presentation at the facilities commission's September meeting.