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UT System move could free up Middle Sixth Street

Michael Barnes, Out & About

Staff Writer
Austin 360

The possible relocation of the University of Texas System headquarters out of downtown presents some tempting social options for Austin. The system might move its 500 employees from a cluster of office buildings along Colorado, Lavaca, West Sixth and West Seventh streets. Among the potential destinations are the Brackenridge Tract, Pickle Research Campus, Mueller Development and University Park. Officials think they could save up to $3 million a year on updated facilities.

The most provocative element in this exchange is not the choice of the new location, but rather, what would happen to that block and a half of prime downtown real estate, located at a crucial ligament between the East Sixth and West Sixth entertainment districts.

Currently, it's a dead zone, especially at night. Facing West Sixth are two handsome Beaux Arts buildings that have served many purposes over their lifetimes. Yet they remain uninviting at the street level. Behind them on West Seventh rises a modest, modern tower. A graceful plaza built around a low fountain unites these elements visually on the northwest corner of Colorado and Sixth.

What if the historic structures were to become boutique hotels with signature restaurants and bars, backed up by dense residences over the current parking lots? That would almost complete the link between the rowdier East Sixth and the increasingly livelier West Sixth, especially if hot new eateries also go into the ground level of the sleek McGarrah Jessee building on the intersection's southeast corner.

Pedestrians, especially tourists, need continuity as well as complexity in order to read a street. Replace just a few buildings, including the reviled U.S. Post Office to the southwest, and you give walkers more motivation to roam from MoPac on Sixth Street's western terminus to Calles Street on the east end. Recently, the fresh social activity on Sixth has gravitated outward, hip to the east, tony to the west. With a new link in the middle, movement could flow in both directions.

OK, where should the UT System go? Brackenridge would cause the most fuss, because it would initiate the inevitable redo of the university's 350 acres there, perhaps including the cherished Muny golf course. (Are golf courses in the middle of a city the best use of land?)

Pickle is just too far out, though it seems less so as each year passes. But does anyone want to fight traffic on MoPac twice a day shuttling between the 40 Acres and the former World War II-era magnesium plant?

Mueller is enticing because so many other groups — medical, educational, social service — are relocating there. At least some of the planned UT medical school might end up there, especially if the school focuses on preventative medicine.

Yet the most logical location is University Park, the mostly abandoned site just blocks from the main UT campus. A fine new office building waits there, almost empty. A hotel, residences and retail might quickly follow with an anchor tenant like the UT System.

mbarnes@statesman.com