Location, Location, Location

AISD is moving its administrative offices from West Sixth Street to Highway 290. Why would any government entity do that?

Austin ISD's new administrative home, the Southfield building (Photo by Jana Birchum)

When Austin ISD trustees voted unanimously in November to sell the district's current headquarters on West Sixth Street and relocate to the Southfield building (at I-35 and Highway 290), it was clear the move would give administrative workers more room in which to work. The only question was whether shifting to Ben White, firmly in the district's southeast corner, distances the district's administration from its residents.

The quick decision to move offices caught a lot of people off-guard. That included Ken Zarifis, president of employee union Edu­ca­tion Austin, who said he only found out days before the vote: "I don't know of anyone who knew this outside of a select inner circle."

Moreover, while the decision came from the board, it was the administration that selected the actual site – trustees just rubber-stamped it. The current central office, the Carruth Administration Center, was one of 10 properties classified as surplus to district needs in 2015 by the Facilities and Bond Planning Advisory Committee. Board President Kendall Pace said the administration spent much of last year asking trustees whether they'd like to consider selling and relocating. Finally, last fall she said she told them, "Look, you come to us with what you think is the best thing to do. Boards change, but you're making a decision that is going to affect the district for decades." Rather than having trustees micromanage the process, she asked the administration to make its own selection; then the board could assess its values. When Southfield came up, she said the decision "wasn't contentious."

Pace conceded that the new location “will be more accessible for some people, and less accessible for others.”

But on Nov. 27, the board gave instructions to the administration to sell the CAC to the Schlosser Development Corporation – SDC's fifth major Lamar/Sixth Street area acquisition, after Shoal Creek Walk, the Whole Foods Market headquarters, and the mixed-use and office properties at Fourth & Lamar, and Fifth & Baylor. At the same meeting, trustees instructed staff to begin negotiations to buy the Southfield building. Sellers agreed to the $28.4 million offer, and now the district is moving south of the river.

The CAC had been a blessing and a curse. Named after Superintendent Irby B. Car­ruth, who oversaw the formal desegregation of AISD in 1966, and nicknamed "Sixth Street" by AISD regulars, its unassuming red brick, tree-lined frontage hides a rabbit warren of an office complex. It's close to Downtown – to shops, stores, and other governmental entities – all pluses for staff and the administration. But traffic on Lamar can be a nightmare, and parking has grown scarce.

More relevant to AISD's purposes, the building is now too small to house the entire administration, and the 32-year-old complex suffers from some of the same deferred maintenance issues as many of the district's campuses ("Saving Austin's Schools," Sept. 8, 2017). Vague discussions have been held for years about a potential sale, including an actual board vote in 2011, but the trigger finally got a good pull in 2016, when engineers performed a facility condition survey of the four administrative buildings, parking garage, and small apartment complex that make up the center. Many big-ticket items, such as roofs, electrical, and HVAC, came in with poor scores.

Trading Location for Utility

What the CAC really had going for it was its location, and that's why Schlosser Devel­op­ment was willing to pay $36.5 million for six buildings in poor shape. (How often do two acres of real estate show up for sale in the urban core?) The Southfield building, by contrast, is a much more desirable building: so much so that the previous owners only held it for a month. Last October, New York-based real estate investment firm Somera Road Inc. bought it for an undisclosed price, and talked publicly about renovating it to appeal to Austin's ever-expanding tech industry. But the group quickly engaged in negotiations with AISD, and ultimately chose to flip it to the school district rather than sink in rehab costs.

The Carruth Administration Center from overhead (Image via Google Maps)

While not one of Austin's most iconic structures, it's one that anybody who's cruised the Ben White flyover off I-35 will know: a nine-story, brown and tan, curved-front office on the northwest corner of the intersection between the two highways. Southfield was built in 1985, making it roughly as old as the CAC, but it's in much better condition. It's also a lot bigger – set on 7.77 acres and laid out over nearly 142,000 square feet of office space, dwarfing the 106,000 square feet found at the CAC. Staff in rented offices and at the Center for Professional Development (at the former Baker campus in Hyde Park, another of those sold-off surplus properties) will finally be able to work together.

What's more, the Southfield deal should pay for itself, without requiring property tax spending. (And that's a good thing: Pace was adamant that asking taxpayers to foot the bill after November's billion-dollar bond would be a nonstarter.) At the Nov. 27 meeting, staff told the board that the total cost for renovating all of the deficiencies at the CAC would have run up to $37 million. Knocking the CAC down and building a replacement could cost as much as $50 million. Southfield, which is turnkey ready, will only cost the district $28.4 million. That leaves some cash for renovations, with some potentially left over to spend on other campuses, and the district's tentative plans to construct some affordable housing.

That’s the Southfield balancing act: While it may not be central, collocating all of the administration staff “will provide a centralized access point, allowing for improved customer service.”

Even with the sale and purchase (plus refurb) prices coming out as a virtual wash, the administration regards Southfield as a win. With a massive surface lot, there's no doubt that parking will be much better than at the CAC. That was a key consideration, wrote Senior Communications Specialist Tiffany Young. "Parking and Downtown traffic are major challenges at the current location. The new location should help alleviate these concerns."

Parking might be one thing; driving to Southfield is another, as anyone who has attempted navigating I-35 during Austin's perma-rush hour will surely attest. And driving may be the easy form as transit. Taking the bus may be bordering on impossible. Fewer Capital Metro routes serve the location, and the stops are right on Ben White's frontage road. The fact that commercial realtors call the area "the Gateway to Austin" makes clear that it is in no way Downtown. That's the Southfield balancing act: While it may not be central, Young said that co-locating all of the administration "will provide a centralized access point, allowing for improved customer service."

Yet Zarifis is not completely convinced about the centralization argument. While there may be advantages to keeping departments on the same corridor, by swapping one office block for another he felt the district had missed an opportunity "to discuss how we could co-locate some of the facilities," or some of the departments, "in a way that allows us to take advantage of the fact that we have teachers, employees, and students in those very workspaces that would allow us to stay connected on the ground, in real life, in the schools."

No Matter Where You Are …

The Southfield building at I-35 and Highway 290 may give AISD administrators more office space, but it moves offices away from other government entities, including the city and county. It also puts the offices in the southern end of the district, making access hard from the north.

Then there's that location issue. While Southfield is closer to the growing student populations in the south, southwest, and southeast districts, it is less easily accessible than the CAC for anyone in the equally expanding northern region. Zarifis said that concern has already been raised by some staffers. "If you're talking about a commute of someone who's making 50 or 60 thousand dollars, that's one thing," he said. "But when you're talking about people who are working hourly, and all of a sudden their commute is increased dramatically every day, that makes a financial impact."

It also creates a particular issue for Edu­ca­tion Austin, as the union recently moved its offices up north, to the intersection of U.S. 183 and MoPac. While the office itself is an improvement, Zarifis admits there are issues with being away from Down­town. And now, with the Southfield move, the union and the administration are 15 miles apart. Similarly, Southfield is four miles from City Hall, along some of the city's most consistently congested and accident-prone stretches of road.

Pace conceded that the new location "will be more accessible for some people, and less accessible for others," adding that while something more central – potentially just south of the river – might have been better, "in terms of availability, access, pricing, this was a good decision at the time." She said the board is already looking at ways to ensure accessibility for Southfield meetings. "We will definitely have a boardroom there, but we've had meetings at the [Per­forming Arts Center in Mueller], and maybe we'll have some work sessions there," she said. "But I definitely expect our formal board sessions will be" at Southfield.

So now begins the complex process of completely relocating AISD administration. Schlos­ser Development has not yet announced their redevelopment plans for the CAC, and has announced that it will continue to rent the complex to the district until it can completely relocate all staff to the Southfield building. That process will take some time, as the district must renovate Southfield to make it suitable for its purpose: for example, a new boardroom. Even with its current shortcomings, employees expect to begin making the new, and for some, longer, commute as early as this summer.

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AISD, Kendall Pace, Southfield building, Ken Zarifis, Carruth Administrative Center

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