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UTSA plans downtown growth on city and county land

September 18, 2018

The University of Texas at San Antonio is planning a major downtown expansion on city and county land fueled by millions of dollars in state funding - some already committed, some dependent on future action by the Legislature — and gifts.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg, City Manager Sheryl Sculley and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff were set to announce Tuesday their commitment to transfer to the university more than five acres bounded by South Santa Rosa Avenue and Dolorosa, South Flores and West Nueva streets.

“This represents a partnership that you rarely ever find in public higher education, where governmental entities like this are behaving in a bold way to do something big and audacious in concert with the university to help realize the opportunity that is before us,” UTSA President Taylor Eighmy told the San Antonio Express-News Editorial Board in a briefing Monday.

The parcels belonging to the city will become the locations of the university’s $33 million National Security Collaboration Center and $57 million School of Data Science. The UT System Board of Regents committed $70 million from the state’s Permanent University Fund at its Sept. 6 meeting for both projects.

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Businessman Graham Weston has pledged $15 million toward the School of Data Science, the largest one-time personal donation he’s ever given to a single project and the university’s largest cash gift in its history, Eighmy said.

Weston has been devoted to rehabilitating downtown and his real estate development firm, Weston Urban, is working with Frost Bank to build its new headquarters downtown, about two blocks north of the proposed UTSA expansion. Weston Urban has accumulated several more acres along San Pedro Creek.

“UTSA is building the best data science program in the world,” Weston said in a prepared statement. “It will train the smartest students in the field and make them the hottest commodities in the workforce. We hope that as UTSA creates them, the biggest employers in the world will come to downtown San Antonio to recruit their IT workforces.”

Eighmy said details are still being finalized, but Sculley said the university will purchase the city land for $7.3 million with the expectation that the city will donate other property on Frio Street in the future as part of a proposed second phase of UTSA development. Such an acquisition will need approval from City Council, she said.

The county land, valued at about $5.7 million, would be the site of a new College of Business the university wants to build, with officials saying they were optimistic the Legislature would approve $126 million in tuition revenue bonds for that purpose. If legislators do not, however, Eighmy said the university would turn to philanthropy.

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Asked how the county would be compensated for its land, Wolff said officials were looking at collaborative arrangements in its agreement with the university but provided no specifics.

The city and university also plan to create private housing, not dorms, across Dolorosa for faculty and students under a future public-private partnership, or “P3.”

The university expects that round of expansion to be finished by 2023. A second growth phase is expected to roll out between 2023 and 2028 involving major construction west of its existing downtown campus.

Leaders anticipate the expansion will aid UTSA in its pursuit of an elite designation called Tier One status. In 2009, legislators designated UTSA and several other Texas colleges as emerging research universities and established a pot of funds for the universities to unlock as they meet certain benchmarks.

Nirenberg noted that the hope for lawmakers’ cooperation in authorizing the tuition revenue bonds was bolstered during a visit with Gov. Greg Abbott in June.

“First thing he mentioned was his agreement with the vision Taylor’s brought to expanding and achieving Tier One status at UTSA,” the mayor said.

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The city, county and university leaders also pointed to a downtown transformation in Phoenix after Arizona State University created a new campus downtown. It drew more than 10,000 students, reinvigorated a sleepy downtown and contributed to sales tax revenue growth.

“For UTSA to be downtown San Antonio is a game changer,” Sculley said. “(Thousands of) students now in the downtown has totally transformed Phoenix and this has the same potential to be transformative.”

The construction project will add to efforts by San Antonio and Bexar County to spur development along San Pedro Creek, which they are in the process of turning into a landscaped leisure trail at a cost of $175 million. The hope is that the rehabilitated creek will bring new life to the western edge of downtown, now dotted with parking lots and empty storefronts.

A new federal courthouse is set to be built across the street from UTSA’s proposed addition there. The city also plans to spend $9.2 million for the redevelopment of the Alameda Theater on the creek to serve as headquarters for Texas Public Radio.

UTSA has been making strides to make the downtown campus more optimal for students to complete their coursework without having to go to the main campus about 20 miles north, just inside Loop 1604. This year’s incoming students in the colleges of public policy and architecture, construction and planning can fulfill degree requirements entirely downtown, university officials have said.

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The university also has announced partnerships with the Tobin Lofts and Doubletree by Hilton San Antonio to offer housing to downtown campus students.

“The idea is to make life very amendable for folks who want to live downtown. A lot of our students are very interested in this,” Eighmy said. “A lot of our younger faculty are very interested in this. They like the idea of being in a vibrant downtown corridor.”

Krista Torralva covers several school districts and public universities in the San Antonio and Bexar County area. Read her on our free site, mySA.com, and on our subscriber site, ExpressNews.com. | Krista.Torralva@express-news.net | Twitter: @KMTorralva

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