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.

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Ralph K.M. Hau­r­witz rhau­r­witz@states­man.com

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.”

JAY JANNER / AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

Op­tions for pre­serv­ing Lions Mu­nic­i­pal Golf Course in­clude land swaps, cre­ation of a phil­an­thropic con­ser­vancy and ho­tel oc­cu­pancy taxes ear­marked for his­toric preser­va­tion.

STEPHEN SPILL­MAN / FOR AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

Muny was added to the Na­tional Regis­ter of His­toric Places in 2016 be­cause it may have been the South’s first in­te­grated golf course.

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