In an announcement officials called “transformative” and “catalytic” for the long-dormant western edge of downtown, the University of Texas at San Antonio unveiled a more than $200 million plan Tuesday to double its downtown student population and build new facilities.
The news included a $15 million gift from Rackspace co-founder and philanthropist Graham Weston to support UTSA’s School of Data Science, UTSA President Taylor Eighmy said. The City of San Antonio and Bexar County also are in discussions with the university to transfer $13 million worth of property across Interstate 10/35 from the existing downtown campus, where the School of Data Science, a National Security Collaboration Center, and a new home for the UTSA College of Business will be built.
“This is the biggest announcement in downtown in 50 years, truly,” said Weston, whose gift Eighmy called the largest cash donation in the university’s history.
UTSA received $70 million from the University of Texas System Board of Regents earlier this month towards the Collaboration Center and Data Science building. Weston’s gift and $5 million from the university allow it to fully advance the $90 million projects, which are scheduled to be completed in time for the Fall 2021 academic year.
The university has asked the Texas Legislature for $126 million to fund the relocation of the College of Business, now located at UTSA’s main campus near Loop 1604. Construction could begin as soon as 2020 on that project, depending on financing, Eighmy said.
The university’s ambitious 10-year plan for its downtown campus helps extend its reach from the West Side into downtown proper, encourages economic growth for the city, and adds to downtown’s tech district.
“This is will be transformational for us as an institution and I think for the near West Side and for the city directly,” Eighmy said Monday during a preview of the announcement. “I’m a firm believer in this notion that great cities need great universities. We have wonderful universities here, but UTSA intends to be a great public research university, and this is part of our equation for getting to that in 10 years.”
He revealed his vision for the near Westside area in February this year, that includes adding 10,000 students to the urban core. About 4,500 students currently attend classes downtown.
The gift is also Weston’s biggest personal donation ever, according to a university news release.
“UTSA is building the best data science program in the world,” Weston stated in the release. “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.
“The School of Data Science will bring thousands of the most innovative students, faculty and researchers together and will accelerate everything else in our downtown tech ecosystem.”
Details about development incentives that UTSA could receive and where buildings will be specifically located are still pending, Eighmy said, and the deal would need approval from City Council and Bexar County Commissioners Court. City Manager Sheryl Sculley said Tuesday the City will recommend the item for Council approval.
Pending that approval, the City would convey 2.5 acres at the intersection of South San Saba and Dolorosa streets and one acre on Dolorosa near South Flores Street (across from the City’s Plaza de Armas) that currently serve as a parking lot and staging site for temporary offices while City Hall undergoes renovation. In addition, Bexar County is considering a transfer of 2.6 acres located between the City’s property there, where an aging county jail and Fire Marshal offices are housed, in addition to a building dedicated to information technology infrastructure. The City properties are valued at $7.3 million and the County properties $5.7 million.
The County has been planning to close the aging Central Texas Detention Facility and move other services, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said, and it’s possible that UTSA and the County could work out a collaborative agreement for the six-story IT building. The historic Navarro building will remain on that site, Wolff said.
“It’ll take us about two years to get it ready,” he said. “We’re anxious to work out something with [Eighmy]. We’ve talked about transferring the land and then maybe having some joint things there – IT or economic development.”
The properties are adjacent to the next phase of the $175 million San Pedro Creek Improvement Project and the $117.4 million federal courthouse slated for completion in 2022.
“This is exactly the future of public research universities – it’s an urban environment,” Eighmy said. “It’s not stuck out in some cornfield somewhere in the middle of the United States. It’s here in a vibrant city.”
In addition to the request for qualifications slated for a residential tower at Cattleman’s Square, adjacent to UTSA’s Downtown Campus, the university also is seeking private partners to develop and manage a workforce housing project with the City at the historic Continental Hotel building.
“We have about $80 million in bond projects that we have invested [in near West San Antonio],” Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) said. “Even before this announcement we have been purposefully investing in this side of town along with the county with the San Pedro Creek improvements. This is an area that’s steeped in history, it is steeped in culture and diversity, so we’re building on that. I think this demonstrates we saw this as an opportunity and not a problem.”
Asked how this agreement was reached, Wolff and City Manager Sheryl Sculley immediately pointed to Eighmy.
“[Eighmy] made this a priority,” she said. “It was the first thing that he talked with the mayor and I when we met … that he’d like to refocus and grow the downtown campus. … With Geekdom and Tech Bloc and the emerging technology infrastructure here in downtown, it’s a natural connection.”
Insurance and banking giant USAA also is moving its technology and innovation teams downtown, Sculley noted.
In 2016, the City and County announced that they were looking for buyers for the properties, but delayed further action because of the San Pedro Creek project.
When Arizona State University opened schools downtown, Sculley said, it was starting from scratch.
“We have an advantage over that,” said Sculley, who worked on bringing several colleges of the university downtown as she worked as assistant city manager in Phoenix for 16 years. “We have a base to work from here with UTSA.”
The College of Architecture, Construction and Planning; the College of Public Policy; and the College of Education and Human Development are located downtown.
“It is the audacity to dream that sets apart San Antonio from many other cities in the entire country,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said during the press conference Tuesday. “But it is the political courage to actually turn those dreams into reality that we’re seeing unfold today that makes this moment a moment we will all remember for us as a city – where we were when we said, ‘San Antonio deserves a world-class university in part of its downtown.’”