What is Muny's future?
Creative options on the table as University of Texas and city of Austin negotiate the future of historic Lions Municipal Golf Course.
The city of Austin and the University of Texas are getting creative in their negotiations aimed at reaching an agreement topreserve Lions Municipal Golf Course as important deadlines near and political pressure intensifies.
The city-operated course sits on UT-owned land in West Austin, and the university wants to realize upward of 10 times the nearly $500,000 a year it receives in lease payments from the city.
The discussions are focusing on ways that the city could provide cash or other benefits to the university in exchange for preserving Lions Municipal, also known as Muny. Options include land swaps, bond funding, creation of a philanthropic conservancy, hotel occupancy taxes earmarked for historic preservation and the creation of a special taxing district for future commercial development on other UT-owned parcels in the city.
UT President Gregory L. Fenves has even floated the notion of the city paying to straighten Red River Street where it jogs at 15th Street and curves through campus. The goal would be to free up more space for an arena to replace the Frank Erwin Center, which is slated to be torn down to accommodate expansion of the Dell Medical School.
Whether the city and the university can come to terms on Muny’s future in the next few months remains an open question. State Sen. Kirk Watson, for
one, thinks the two sides are a long way from an agreement. Absent a resolution, Watson, an Austin Democrat, said he is prepared to file a bill to preserve the course during the legislative session that begins in January.
“It might not be something either party would like,” Watson said, declining to elaborate other than to say his proposal would differ from a Senate-passed bill in 2017 that he opposed and that died in the House. That bill would have transferred ownership of Muny to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department for use as a public golf course. “It’s time for them (city and university officials) to lock themselves in a room and hammer it out.”
A critical deadline in the negotiations will arrive at the close of business Nov. 26. That’s when either party must give notice if it wants to cancel the lease when its 30-year term comes to an end at midnight May 25. If neither party provides such notice, the lease automatically extends for five years. If one of the parties provides notice, there would be an opportunity for the two sides to negotiate new terms or a modification of the lease before it expires in May.
Muny, originally leased to the Lions Club in 1924 and then to the city since 1936, features tree-lined fairways and holes that have confounded such golfing greats as Ben Hogan. Its 141 acres, adjacent to the tony West Austin neighborhood of Tarrytown, are sandwiched between Enfield Road, Lake Austin Boulevard and Exposition Boulevard.
The course is part of UT’s 350-acre Brackenridge Tract, whose other leased parcels include a grocery store, restaurants, a marina, shops, an apartment complex and the Lower Colorado River Authority’s headquarters. Lease payments benefit the university. Other portions of the tract are occupied by UT’s biological field laboratory and student apartments. The tract is named for George W. Brackenridge, a long-serving member of UT’s governing board who donated the land in 1910.
The UT System Board of Regents has for years contemplated leasing Muny for residential and commercial development. Indeed, the board voted in 2011 against renewing the city’s lease, and, as recently as 2016, Fenves and then-UT System Chancellor Bill McRaven told the National Park Service that Muny “will not be operated as a golf course” after the lease expires.
That pledge was thrown into serious doubt in 2016, when the National Park Service added Muny to the National Register of Historic Places because of its place in the nation’s civil rights movement. Some scholars say it was the first public golf course in the southern United States to become integrated, according to the Texas Historical Commission.
UT had urged the National Park Service to designate a limited portion of the property, including the clubhouse and greenskeeper’s cottage, for the National Register. However, the federal agency agreed with Save Muny, a group that nominated the course for listing, and the Texas Historical Commission, which endorsed the nomination, that the entire property merited inclusion.
Although a National Register listing doesn’t necessarily bar UT from leasing Muny for development, the university and its governing board no doubt are wary of destroying a civil rights landmark. After all, UT has struggled for decades to forge a post-segregation identity. The university was founded for white students and didn’t admit a black one until 1950, and then only by order of the U.S. Supreme Court. Two years ago, UT narrowly won a Supreme Court ruling that upheld its race-conscious admissions program.
Seeking solution that’s ‘mutually beneficial’
Austin Mayor Steve Adler said he hopes to preserve not only Muny but also land on the south side of Lake Austin Boulevard that borders Lake Austin.
“That’s land that, if we were able to get it, 100 years from now people would be really thankful,” Adler said. “Both the university and the city are trying to find ways that the city could provide value to the university in exchange for helping to impact or control the use of the Brackenridge Tract or parts of the Brackenridge Tract, including Muny. Those things could take lots of different forms.”
Fenves said the university isn’t seeking the fair market lease value of Muny, which he puts at about $6 million a year, but instead “a reasonable value that factors in that it also has other benefits that are nonmonetary. We’re hopeful we will come to a solution that’s mutually beneficial.”
Letters between the city and the university that were obtained by the American-Statesman under the Texas Public Information Act outline various options.
Besides realigning Red River Street, Fenves suggested creating a so-called tax increment financing district that would cover the Brackenridge Tract and three other UT-owned properties: the former Sematech campus off Montopolis and East Riverside Drives in Southeast Austin; the west tract of the J.J. Pickle Research Campus in North Austin; and the Gateway student apartments along West Sixth Street. Under his proposal, a portion of property taxes from development of those tracts would be earmarked for UT to be used for various purposes, including water, wastewater and other infrastructure improvements for those parcels.
Interim Assistant City Manager Sara Hensley wrote that the city needs specifics on “the scope and nature of development envisioned on the suggested properties.” The city also needs “a realistic assessment of infrastructure limitations,” including the intersection at MoPac and Lake Austin Boulevards and environmental constraints. Land swaps, use of hotel occupancy taxes, philanthropy and other options are being explored by city staffers for City Council consideration, she said.
The city has hired Junie Plummer, a retired city property agent, to assist with negotiations. Kent Smith, a real estate lawyer who joined the city’s Law Department in July, is the city’s lead lawyer in the talks. UT is represented by Richard Suttle, a veteran land use and development lawyer with Armbrust & Brown PLLC.
Meanwhile, UT in July set a deadline of Tuesday for proposals to lease two Brackenridge Tract parcels, a Randalls grocery store at the intersection of Lake Austin and Exposition Boulevards and a nearby 7-Eleven convenience store. The leases for those parcels expire May 30 and May 31, respectively. The university will consider proposals to lease with or without new development.
A 1989 development agreement between the city and UT spells out river setbacks, building heights and other standards for nonuniversity uses of the Brackenridge Tract. Like the Muny lease, that agreement expires May 25. In its request for proposals, UT said it is negotiating with the city to establish development regulations that “will appeal to community and market needs and desires, and will enhance the economic value of the property and surrounding land.”
Although the city’s position is that Muny should be preserved for its recreational, historic and green space qualities, any agreement would need support from at least six City Council members. A majority of the nine-member UT System Board of Regents also would need to sign off on any deal.
The UT board spent $4.9 million in 2009 for conceptual plans to develop the Brackenridge Tract into a small city within a city, featuring thousands of housing units as well as offices, shops, hotels, parks, trails and even a yoga pier. Muny, which would not have survived the bulldozer under that plan, is the most popular of the city’s six municipal courses, recording more than 55,000 rounds in each of the past five years, said Kevin Gomillion, manager of the city’s golf division.
Council Member Leslie Pool, who wants to see Muny preserved, said the neighborhood’s roads would not support very dense development. Lake Austin Boulevard’s intersections at MoPac Boulevard and Red Bud Trail are already major bottlenecks.
Council Member Alison Alter, whose District 10 includes Muny and who wants the course to be preserved, said nothing is off the table in the city’s discussions with UT. For example, she said, the city recently allocated hotel occupancy taxes to a historic preservation fund and it’s conceivable that $1 million of that could be earmarked annually for payments to UT as part of a Muny preservation agreement.
“We have an opportunity here to preserve Lions for the future and also to create spaces around it that will be iconic parts of Austin,” Alter said. “However we do it is going to involve multiple sources of value for UT, and anything we do will bring value to the city as well.”
Options for preserving Lions Municipal Golf Course include land swaps, creation of a philanthropic conservancy and hotel occupancy taxes earmarked for historic preservation.
Muny was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2016 because it may have been the South’s first integrated golf course.