Campus Master Plan

The bridge by San Jacinto dorm is a example of the 2013 master plan’s hope to feature Waller Creek more around the university and downtown. Many renovations, such as new bike trails and a possibly rail line, will take place in the next 20-30 years.

Photo Credit: Jonathan Garza | Daily Texan Staff

Just as surveyor and Austin mayor Edwin Waller considered Waller Creek a beautiful resource in his original 1838 plan for the city, recent University and city master plans are beginning to feature the creek more prominently as an important ecological asset, resulting in drastic changes both on campus and in downtown Austin.

While Waller Creek has always figured prominently in UT’s history, only in recent decades did the University begin to embrace the creek’s ecological value. The University’s 2013 Campus Master Plan, which outlines goals for how campus will develop in the next 30 years, set in motion the construction of the Dell Medical School and launched a plan to make the creek a more centralized feature of campus. Meanwhile, construction projects downtown will redirect the southernmost part of the creek in order to increase area safety and foster economic growth.

Architecture professor Larry Speck, who helped develop the master plan, said the geographical and psychological center of the University has moved east over the past 25 years, as UT has constructed new buildings on the east side of campus.

Speck said the new center of campus may begin to shift away from the Student Activities Center and Liberal Arts Building and toward San Jacinto Boulevard, where Waller Creek runs and where the city may develop a rail line. The University is also working with the city on plans to create a continuous hike-and-bike trail that connects Lady Bird Lake to the city and campus, perhaps as far north as Dean Keeton Street. 

“The center of gravity is definitely moving east once again,” Speck said. “The light rail is supposed to go up San Jacinto, and so if you have students coming and going to the campus and getting off at San Jacinto and right there, there’s a beautiful creek, oasis, green space and a place to hang out and recreation there. Then that really becomes a kind of center to campus, say, 20 or 30 years from now.”

Speck said the University has not always viewed the creek as an asset or incorporated the creek into architectural designs. In the 1950s and 1960s, the University neglected the creek’s ecosystem, at times constructing buildings with loading docks directly on the creekside.

“If you go back and look at the master plan and how they were planning it, the car is freaking God,” Speck said. “I mean, it’s all about as many parking spaces as close to the buildings as possible. Honestly, it was nasty.”

The University has moved away from being the car-obsessed campus it was in the 1950s, Speck said.

“The whole east side over there was just full of parking lots, and that’s what people thought was important,” Speck said. “At a certain point people said, you know, ‘that doesn’t make much of a campus, there’s no sense of community here.’”

According to Speck, the Etter-Harbin Alumni Center, or the Texas Exes building, was one of the few buildings constructed during the 1960s that incorporated the creek into its design, displaying it in the window of the ballroom. Speck said the building demonstrated the creek’s potential as an ecological asset.

“You know, it’s just phenomenal just how quickly cultural attitudes change,” Speck said. “You could see [the creek] not as an edge but as a green space that is a positive, you know, pleasant place to be in the middle of campus.”

With the development of the 1996 Campus Master Plan, University administrators decided to improve mobility for pedestrians and bikers and orient buildings toward the creek, Speck said.

The Dell Medical School, which will accept its first class in 2016, will have all its buildings oriented toward the creek — and as a result, University efforts to improve the creek will target this area first.

“[When] you walk into the front door of the teaching hospital, you [will] look through a big, glassy lobby,” Speck said. “You will look right out into the creek, front and center.”

Speck said he thinks the University’s improvements to the creek may be done piece-by-piece, as new buildings are constructed and existing buildings are renovated.

“I think that human beings and ecosystems can be compatible if they’re designed properly,” Speck said. “It’s just dumbass stupid to leave it like a ditch.”

Farther south along the creek, city planners are constructing the Waller Creek Tunnel, which will reclaim 28 acres, or 11 percent, of the downtown floodplain in order to allow for area redevelopment. Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, who is leading the project, said she would often visit Waller Creek to reflect when she was a UT student and could not pass up the opportunity to spearhead the project.

“It’s just my passion,” Cole said. “I was captivated by it. I love being down there, and once I had it as a project, it is hard to resist thinking about it — what could be here, what could go there.”

Cole said the development will include adding housing and shops, will improve the water quality in Waller Creek and prevent future erosion. The project is scheduled to be completed in fall 2014 at a total cost of $146.5 million.

The Waller Creek Conservancy is responsible for surface-level improvements in the area. After hosting a design competition in 2011 and securing initial funding in a 2012 bond election, the conservancy began work on a park in early 2013. Executive Director Stephanie McDonald said as the conservancy implements the park design, securing additional funding from public and private sources will remain a challenge. 

In addition to cleaning up the creek and adding amenities, McDonald said a major challenge is changing people’s perceptions of the creek so they realize investing in it is a worthwhile endeavor.

“I think that [for] most people, if they even know where it is, [the creek is] largely ignored, or they don’t see it as an asset,” McDonald said. “People see it as an area where only unsafe things happen.”

Cole said she thinks the Waller Creek Tunnel Project and subsequent projects, such as the conservancy’s, will improve connectivity between different parts of Austin.

“As the area is revitalized and you have more people, including housing and students and pedestrians, it’s not so isolated … the safety issues will just kind of melt away,” Cole said. “Activity brings more livelihood and less interest in criminal events.”

But the creek’s future could be impacted by future development of large offices and apartment complexes that may detract from the historic feel the area offers. Philip Fry, co-author of a book about Waller Creek, said he is concerned private area development will conflict with the conservancy’s design of the park.

“[The park areas are] tied together by the creek, of course, and you can travel from one to the other,” Fry said. “It’ll be different. It’ll try to incorporate the public space with the private commercial development.”

Fry, a longtime Austin resident, said he thinks preserving some of the old bars and buildings downtown is important.

“If you go down to Rainey Street right now, you will see some of the foundation work for fairly large condominiums and hotels,” Fry said. “As you go from Waterloo Park along down you’re gonna have open spaces and then sheer walls of buildings, open spaces, more canyons of tall condominiums, and some of those are already in the works.”

The 2012 master plan, which will help shape the University’s growth for the next 25 to 30 years, includes plans for the new UT med school area, pictured above. The master plan proposes the possibility of removing the Frank Erwin Center.

Update: The Board of Regents approved the $334.5 million plan Thursday morning. Read here for more details.

Original Story: Austin’s winding Red River Street may be straightened out to accommodate the new UT medical school, according to the new UT Campus Master Plan presented by architecture professor Lawrence Speck at Wednesday’s UT System Board of Regents meeting.

The 2012 master plan, which will help shape the University’s growth for the next 25 to 30 years, focused mainly on the architectural efficiency of the central campus area, which is to the east of San Jacinto Boulevard and currently encompasses the School of Law, Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and Fine Arts buildings. The presentation also focused on the land that will be designated for the planned medical school. Speck said the last campus master plan was published in 1996.

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The  UT Campus Master Plan divides the campus into three areas — core, central and east.

President William Powers Jr. said the master plan is critical to the expansion of the campus.

“We have engaged historically in a master plan process to look out over the next 25 years and make sure what we’re planning and doing is consistent, rather than just making decisions on an ad hoc basis,” Powers said.

Speck emphasized the need for increased density in central campus but said this density can include lawns and other social spaces.

“Right now, central campus is really nobody’s favorite part of campus,” Speck said. “There’s not much shade in the area – it’s just not a place where there’s a lot of lively campus activity, and we want to create more lively spaces for those activities to occur.”

Speck said the UT Medical District land presents multiple architectural challenges, citing five state- and city-designated Capitol view corridors — sightlines where the capitol must be visible — as an example. He said one of the biggest impediments to building on the land is the winding Red River Street, which divides the blocks unevenly. The plan proposes a street realignment which would put Red River on a grid with surrounding streets.

“[Red River Street] has never carried much traffic, but it’s a very wide street,” Speck said. “It creates strangely shaped parcels of land, where the grid [that used to be in place] made for much more sensible parcels.”

The master plan proposes multiple other changes, which will be implemented in stages over the next five to 10 years. The Frank Erwin Center, Collections Deposit Library and Denton A. Cooley Pavilion are all slated for removal, while other sites will be converted for short-term use for the medical school, such as the 15th Street parking garage.

UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa asked about the accessibility of the third section of the UT campus, which is land to the east of Interstate 35.

“In looking at this plan, the only part where continuity seems to be somewhat compromised is the flow of people and individuals to that east side,” Cigarroa said. “Are there corridors where you can facilitate that path?”

Speck said he was confident that such corridors existed but also said this was not the focus of the current plan.

“At Manor Road, there’s a good connection across I-35, but we have not really fully utilized that connection,” Speck said. “That’s going to be absolutely critical, that we strengthen that connection ... [but] this phase did not emphasize that so much.”

Winston Churchill said that “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” A university that contributes so much to the local and global cultural dialogue should not ignore the reciprocal relationship between culture and architecture. Buildings and landscape are not merely passive spaces in which to perform activities. The way a building or outdoor area is designed influences the attitudes of the people who inhabit it.

While many of the newly constructed buildings on campus are models of responsible architectural design, they fail to excite a passion for change or to stimulate a dialogue about our evolving physical environment. Every building on campus need not serve as an architectural revelation, but buildings that inspire students to reconsider accepted methods of construction and design can precipitate a broader questioning of other unchallenged aspects in culture, science and society.

The conservative character of campus’ newer architecture is not due to a dearth of creativity on the part of the architects commissioned to design these buildings. Instead, it is dictated by the Campus Master Plan, which states that “the scale, shape, texture, materials and color of proposed structures and the composition of open spaces match that of older revered places.” The plan, written by Cesar Pelli and Associates in 1996, is a reaction to buildings such as RLM and Jester which detract from the humanist spirit of campus’ older buildings.

Regarding these buildings, the plan goes on to say that “the mass of these more contemporary buildings has profoundly altered the character and human scale of the campus,” and that “architects who add new buildings to a campus have an obligation to understand and respect the character of its most exceptional parts.” Though many of campus’ most derided buildings are “contemporary,” it would be a mistake to equate bad architecture with contemporary architecture.

In December 1998, the University hired Swiss architecture firm Herzog and de Meuron to design a building for the Blanton Museum of Art. The architects proposed a pair of rectangular limestone buildings stretching east to west under an undulating green roof. The orientation and dimensions of the buildings were derived from campus’ older buildings, which were designed to respond to the particular climatic conditions of Austin before the advent of air conditioning.

Although the building did not look like anything else on campus, its design DNA was derived from well-established local architectural traditions.

After an unsuccessful presentation to the Board of Regents, the green roof was changed to a red tile roof in order to connect the building to the campus’ existing architectural character in a more visible way. However, this change failed to satisfy the Board, and after a series of further disagreements and snafus, Herzog and de Meuron quit the project. While UT proceeded to construct a lackluster, historicist museum complex, Herzog and de Meuron moved on to design landmarks including the Beijing Olympic Stadium and the deYoung Museum in San Francisco. They were then awarded the prestigious Pritzker Prize for architecture in 2001.

The importance of the Blanton episode is not that UT missed out on the opportunity to acquire a star architect-designed showpiece. Instead, the situation is meaningful because it established a precedent that future buildings on campus would conform to a narrow interpretation of the goals established in the Campus Master Plan. Herzog and de Meuron’s Blanton proposal demonstrated a far deeper understanding and respect for campus’ “most exceptional parts” than the building we have today. Yet because of an unwillingness to accept a different interpretation of campus’ architectural character and an unwillingness to change their own aesthetic prejudices, the Board of Regents deprived students of the opportunity to appreciate the built environment in a deep, profound way.

A university campus serves as a safe place to challenge accepted ways of thinking. In classrooms and laboratories, students and faculty are encouraged to push boundaries and change the world. In order to reinforce and facilitate this belief in positive change, buildings and outdoor spaces around campus should also challenge accepted ways of understanding the built environment. If we are truly intent on changing the world, then we must create an environment that welcomes change on campus.

Finke is an architecture and urban studies senior.