Faculty panel calling for environmental campus at Brackenridge tract

Monday, September 21, 2009, 09:50 AM

The University of Texas’ Brackenridge tract in West Austin would be transformed into an environmental science campus under a proposal to be presented today by a panel of faculty members.

The five-member faculty committee is calling for enhancing an existing biological field laboratory by housing the university’s extensive plant and natural history collections, currently stored on the main campus, in a new science center that would serve as a museum, a research center and a public outreach site.

Additional space on the 350-acre tract would be set aside for a technology transfer center, where researchers could work on biofuels, biotech, clean energy, environmentally friendly architecture and other initiatives with a goal of moving breakthroughs at the lab bench into the marketplace.

“It basically gives UT a large environmental sciences campus along Lake Austin with public outreach components, commercial components and academic components,” David Hillis, a professor of integrative biology and chairman of the panel, said in an interview this morning.

Hillis is scheduled to outline the committee’s recommendations at a Faculty Council meeting this afternoon.

The proposal by the Faculty Council panel differs dramatically from two conceptual plans developed by a consulting firm hired by the university’s governing board and outlined in June. Those plans call for downsizing or relocating the Brackenridge Field Laboratory, eliminating a municipal golf course and developing a dense residential and commercial neighborhood.

The faculty members’ proposal defers a decision on the Lions Municipal Golf Course until closer to 2019, when the city’s lease for the parcel expires. The faculty committee is recommending against residential development.

“It doesn’t fit UT’s mission,” Hillis said. “We have a lot of need for space to enhance UT’s academic programs.”

The faculty panel’s proposal is similar to those advanced by Cooper, Robertson & Partners LLP in some ways. For example, a hike-and-bike trail would be extended into the Brackenridge tract, and and retail space would be leased for shops such as cafes and bicycle stores.

In addition, the faculty panel wants to expand the university-owned Gateway apartment complex, just off the Brackenridge tract, to accommodate some students living in apartments on the tract. The Cooper firm recommended eliminating all apartments on the tract, but the faculty members are calling for eliminating some and deciding later about the rest.

Hillis said funding for his panel’s recommendations needs to be worked out. “The financials I think are still somewhat unclear on everybody’s proposals,” he said.

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