UHV's master plan remains in fluctuation

Carolina Astrain By Carolina Astrain

Aug. 3, 2013 at 3:03 a.m.

The University of Houston-Victoria's quest to become a free-standing institution depends on whether its neighbors are willing to sell nearby land for the university's expansion.

The university's 2011-30 master plan shows the creation of new buildings all within the area of the existing campus and in an area that contains homes and businesses across Ben Wilson Street.

Is this a good use of the $88.15 million the university is seeking from the state for construction?

Or would it be more economical to buy land and build a separate free-standing university elsewhere?

The $88.15 million request is specific to the projects listed in the funding request, said Phil Castille, UHV president.

But the language in the request for acreage doesn't specify where the land must be purchased.

Five years ago, the heirs of Frank Buhler offered the city 100 acres near Zac Lentz Parkway and the airport, about 5 miles from campus, for the expansion of UHV.

However, the University of Houston System showed no public interest in the offer.

The Buhlers have since taken the offer off the table, but Bruce Buhler said he's open to future discussion with the city.

But before any building can occur, the university must receive funding from the state.

University officials are waiting to learn whether Gov. Rick Perry will approve the funding bill for the capital improvements.

"Everybody from UT, A&M to UT-Tyler and UHV, all of us are holding our breaths right now," said Castille. "There's a great deal of pent-up demand across Texas higher education institutions."

The last time the governor approved a higher education construction bond was in 2006, Castille said.

The university's request included about $52.2 million to build new academic spaces, $12 million to renovate University West and a contemporary UHV Library and Center for Student Support and $24 million to buy property near the existing campus for expansion.

Castille said the university has not officially planned beyond 2020, and the master plan, which goes through 2030, is a conceptual one.

"Since (last year), the conceptual placement of buildings has dramatically changed after input from neighborhoods, community leaders and Victoria College," Castille wrote in an email. "The lack of a steady, consistent flow of funds from the state for campus construction projects makes long-term planning difficult."

Whichever direction the university decides to go, it will need to move soon if it wants to keep up with the projected enrollment growth.

In 2011, the university had about 4,300 students enrolled, of which 510 were residential.

By 2020, the university projects the enrollment to increase to 1,200 full-time residential students on its campus.

At least one longtime supporter of UHV is wondering why the university doesn't avoid the cost of high-value property and start anew somewhere else.

Claud Jacobs, a local investment and financial planner and longtime supporter of the university who spoke openly against UHV's master plan last year, has stuck to his opinion.

"I figure if you have free land being offered to you and then you're turning around and buying new land, that just doesn't make any sense whatsoever," Jacobs said. "They'd have to buy high-priced property, which doesn't make any economic sense."

Some of the property being considered is along Ben Wilson Street, including Casa del Rio and Arlington apartment complexes and American Classifieds.

"We don't own them yet, but we are extremely interested in adding extra acreage," said Wayne Beran, UHV vice president for administration and finance.

Woolson Real Estate president and broker Nancy Garner said that over the past several months she's been in discussion with the university about the purchase of the apartment complexes and property across Ben Wilson Street.

"If the properties are purchased, Woolson and UHV would partner to work together on that transition," Garner said. "Any decision made to transitioning the tenants out would be done over an extended period of time."

Property owners of American Classifieds Rhonda and Kevin Kalich said they have yet to be approached by the university, but they would consider the sale.

The original master plan developed in 2011 called for the addition of seven new structures in areas close to UHV's border with Victoria College and in the area of the existing apartment complexes.

Since receiving the community's feedback, the university has reduced the number of buildings and modified locations.

Removed from the plan are two five-level garages, a pedestrian mall, retail space and student housing.

These modifications are subject to change again because of the conceptual nature of the living document, Castille said.

A retention pond just west of the new Academic and Economic Development Building was added to the plans at the city's recommendation to help with possible flooding.

"We're going to need more land, but at the same time, we want to be good neighbors," Beran said.

The possibility of building over the soccer fields because of a lack of space has also been discussed by UHV leaders.

"If the state provides funding for us to build out on the soccer field per our master plan, UHV will make alternative arrangements for our men's and women's soccer teams to practice and play games," Castille wrote in an email.

Brownson Terrace resident Rick Renaud, 68, has lived in his home behind the UHV soccer fields for more than 30 years.

"They just built those fields," said Renaud, adding that construction over the new fields would be a waste of public funds.

UHV should have moved and let Victoria College take over the rest of the land on Red River and Ben Wilson streets, said Renaud.

"If they could have had all that land by the airport for free, then they should have taken it," Renaud said.

Another Brownson Terrace resident also has concerns about the growth plans.

When Jim Frank, president of the Brownson Terrace Neighborhood Association, heard about the plans for the five-story parking garage, he requested a meeting with UHV leadership.

He was joined by five other neighborhood association members in a meeting with the university president in April 2012.

Frank said he remembers the meeting being less than cordial.

"The administration appeared to be nonresponsive and unsympathetic to our concerns," Frank said. "The group that met with the administration got no feedback - which I think was warranted - whatsoever afterward."

The university needs to develop a better working relationship with the adjacent neighborhoods, Frank said.

Nonetheless, the Brownson Terrace resident said he's glad the five-story parking structure is no longer in the picture.

"It's gratifying to know we were a part of the rethinking of their master plan," Frank said. "And in the future, we would hope that we would be able to have a conversation with them when it affects our common interests."

To help ease the increasing parking shortage, Castille said, the university purchased land behind the dormitories for a parking lot.

From there, employees and students can ride one of the university's three free shuttles to the campus.

Mayor Paul Polasek, a UHV and UH alumnus, said the university's continued expansion would help broaden the city's tax base.

"I do have some concern that they don't have enough room to grow in the future, but I'm hoping for the best," Polasek said. "We want to be a good partner to UHV."

Beran gives UHV credit for helping the city grow.

"We have been a big part of Victoria's economic boom," Beran said. He credits UHV's growth to the construction of the new Wal-Mart 2 miles away from the campus and the Whittington apartments across from the dorms.

Support for the university is also coming from former opponents.

Former Mayor Will Armstrong and Victoria businessman Dennis Patillo, who served on a committee to have another university take over the campus, are now supporters of the growth plans.

"UHV has my upmost support and confidence," Armstrong said. "The university is moving forward in a progressive nature."

Patillo, who is the midst of opening a new restaurant in downtown Victoria, said he thinks the growth of Victoria's educated community is dependant on the university's success.

"I'm thankful for everything UHV has done to fulfill the enormous need we have for education in our community," Patillo said. "It's absolutely vital that we continue our growth in the academic arena."



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