Student Housing: UTB-TSC split halts housing project

By JACQUELINE ARMENDARIZ for The Brownsville Herald

There might have been a new face for one of Brownsville’s most important assets. Instead, a massive student housing plan at Fort Brown now appears to be the first clear victim of the end of the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College 20-year partnership.

A $17 million housing project in the heart of campus, paid for by the University of Texas System, has been quashed. According to UTB-TSC President Juliet V. Garcia, the dead venture, which would have demolished The Village, was part of a much larger master plan that has now changed. TSC Board of Trustees Chairman Francisco “Kiko” Rendon said this week that he was not aware of the $17 million project. UT System documents show that the multi-million dollar project called “The Village at Fort Brown – Phase II,” was part of the UT System Capital Improvement Program as early as 2006.

“We envisioned that whole peninsula becoming housing,” Garcia said of the Fort Brown area where The Village sits. “The intention always was to destroy (the buildings), raze them and build new ones. That’s why it was on the CIP because we were going to build right there where the current Village is.”

The end of The Village project became official this May when the UT System Board of Regents approved the purchase of a newer housing complex for UTB, just two months after a TSC Board of Trustees vote reaffirmed the UTB-TSC breakup. The day after the May UTB announcement, the project was removed from UT System’s pool of major construction projects.

The project’s design was scheduled for approval in November 2011, documents show. The projected completion date was August 2014, a year before what is now the partnership termination date of August 2015.

A 2005 study cited in UT documents found a need for at least 800 student housing beds on campus. The master plan that might have been included housing for freshmen, upperclassmen, graduate students and families, especially because of its proximity to the now existing childcare center, Garcia said. TSC bought Fort Brown buildings, she said, to test the market with The Village.

Eventually the master plan was to result in a projected 1,570 beds, 160 apartments, a student dining building, student-related retail space, and approximately 400 parking spaces, according to a 2010 press release from UTB-TSC project management and planning company Broaddus and Associates.

Rendon said he doubted the proposed $17 million in construction would have been beneficial for TSC because it seemed it would leave The Village untouched while a more attractive, newer UTB complex stood next door.

In the midst of discussing the project that will never be, officials from both schools continued to pass blame for the split upon one another. Rendon maintained it was the decision of the UT System Board of Regents when it voted to terminate the partnership in November.

Garcia said UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa “was very distressed about the separation and tried very hard to keep it from happening personally.” The university’s new property called Casa Bella, at FJRM Avenue and East Jackson Street, was appraised at $14.2 million, but bought for $11.71 million, officials said this past week. Garcia also said the dorm rents paid by students are expected to cover the cost of the purchase.

“There is a bit of a coincidental piece to this,” Garcia said of UTB’s purchase. “Had we stayed together, would we still have bought La Estancia? I don’t know the answer to that. … But, once the separation was final it was clear I needed to have housing for university students.” TSC recently hired an appraiser to evaluate land next to the recent UTB purchase, but the majority of the school’s trustees have insisted that it is nothing more than testing the market.

TSC trustee Juan “Trey” Mendez said former TSC boards had handled student housing in an “unfortunate” manner. “I believe that the transition will reveal some very limited circumstances where TSC may have benefited in the partnership that UT Sytem ultimately decided to terminate,” he wrote.

Mendez and Trustee David Oliveira said The Village probably needs to be demolished. Oliveira, who has been a TSC trustee for 17 years, said the axed project is a “perfect example” of the mutually beneficial nature of the partnership. “This was incredibly beneficial to the taxpayers,” he said. “The plan was to use that money to raze and then build brand new housing there if we need it. That would have been with UT System’s money.” Overall, Mendez said he thinks it’s clear the majority of TSC Board of Trustees who voted for the split “made the best decision.”

“I’m very happy to see that the UT System is finally investing substantial money into Brownsville rather than allow taxpayer money meant for a junior college to subsidize a university,” he said.

UT System is certainly “planting a larger flag” in Brownsville, Garcia said. “UT realizes how important the Valley is,” she said. “It’s not lost on them and I don’t have to give that speech anymore. I did for years. They know. They clearly feel it.”leaving mostly property tax-supported TSC to deal with the reportedly $14 million in repairs needed for its dorm called The Village.

[brownsvilleherald.com]

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