A&M campus could become S.A.'s Harvard
Web Posted: 06/01/2008 12:02 AM CDT
By Melissa Ludwig
Look out Harvard, here comes Texas A&M University-San Antonio.
The first sketches of a new campus and urban village to be built on the South Side reveal a bustling, walkable community that developers are comparing to Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Looking at what's now a sleepy stretch of farmland, the scenes of crowds strolling across broad plazas and tree-lined promenades seem utterly unimaginable.
“Yes, Harvard-Cambridge may seem like pie-in-the sky, but it's not,” said Scott Polikov, president of Fort Worth-based Gateway Planning Group, which is designing the community for the Verano Land Group. Verano donated nearly 700 acres to Texas A&M to build the university and an irrigation technology center, with plans to recoup its costs on the surrounding developments.
“One of the reasons Harvard became great is that Cambridge was planned and grew to be a vessel to support Harvard,” Polikov said. “This is absolutely possible.”
Gateway's drawings depict a mixed-use community called Verano at City South, situated on 2,700 acres south of Loop 410 between Pleasanton Road and South Zarzamora Street.
The future Texas A&M University-San Antonio will serve as the anchor, surrounded by high-density lofts, town homes, student housing, office and industrial space, stores and restaurants.
Developers also envision a sports complex, a teaching hospital, a retirement community and a commuter rail station that may someday connect San Antonio to Austin and Round Rock. The expected completion date is 2037.
“This is a generational thing, not a five-year thing,” Polikov said. “We are giving birth to a new community.”
Texas A&M officials hope to break ground on campus infrastructure next year and the main building by 2010, a target that will require a Herculean effort by all stakeholders.
Everything is riding on one magic number: 1,500.
That's the number of full-time students needed at the local seed campus, a system center run by Texas A&M University-Kingsville that serves as the foundation for a full-grown university. Lawmakers have set aside $40 million in revenue bonds to build a new campus, but A&M will not get the money until enrollment at the system center hits 1,500. This spring, it reached 626.
Maria Hernandez Ferrier, the seed campus' newly appointed director, is shooting for 1,500 this fall, more than doubling the school's enrollment over the summer.
“It's our big, hairy, audacious goal,” Ferrier said. “We are going to do it. I have every confidence that we are going to do it.”
Starting from scratch
Ferrier's motivation goes deeper than that of a detached consultant. She's walked in her students' shoes.
Ferrier grew up on San Antonio's struggling West Side and didn't start college until she was 30. By then, she had married and divorced, and had two children. A mentor encouraged her to get an education, and it opened up her world.
She earned bachelor's and master's degrees from Our Lady of the Lake University and a doctorate in education from Texas A&M University. Ferrier went on to serve as assistant deputy secretary in the U.S. Education Department, and most recently served as director of the Southwest Independent School District's private foundation.
“Did I ever dream I would be in this position? Are you kidding me?” Ferrier said. “Education opened the door for me even when I didn't believe in myself. I am seeing this in so many of our students.”
As the University of Texas at San Antonio tightens its admission standards on its way to becoming a premier research university, Ferrier sees Texas A&M stepping in to serve those left behind.
“People on this part of town are just as bright as any other part of town,” she said. “But they need the opportunity and this university is giving that opportunity.”
With its embrace of new urbanism, the entire Verano development will raise the standard of living for many South Side residents, Ferrier said.
According to Polikov, Verano will build a variety of housing, from $150,000 starter homes to $500,000 condos. Everyone from professors and students to physical plant workers should be able to live affordably in the community, he said.
When finished, it will be hard to tell where the university ends and the village begins, Polikov said. Like Cambridge, people will be able to walk to the grocery store or the bookstore. Residents could use the library, and local sports leagues will share a stadium with college teams. There will be green spaces and streets designed for pedestrians and bicycles.
Unlike UTSA, which started out as a commuter campus and took 40 years to become semi-residential, A&M will build housing and other amenities from the get-go.
“We have the opportunity to start from scratch,” Polikov said. “That's how great communities are built.”
It's also a great opportunity for wealthy philanthropists to put their names on buildings, a pitch Ferrier plans to leverage in raising money to help build the campus.
Marmon Mok, a local architecture firm, already has begun drawing up plans for the permanent campus.
Eventually, the university will draw 25,000 students, create 10,200 permanent jobs and have an economic impact of $790 million, according to Verano's estimates.
Thirty years down the road, the development will generate $193 million a year in taxes and be worth $3.2 billion.
“The market shows these are the neighborhoods maintaining their value,” Polikov said. “This is going to be an attraction at an international level.”
Much of the burden for making all this happen rests now on Ferrier's petite shoulders.
Without the $40 million in revenue bonds, there will be no campus, and without 1,500 full-time students at the seed campus, there will be no revenue bonds.
To help lure students, the campus is offering $1,500-a-year scholarships to every student who qualifies. Verano has already donated $1 million to a scholarship fund and is helping to raise $7 million more.
The system's newly hired marketing director, Marilu Reyna, said she will launch a campaign next month to advertise the scholarships and the campus' new degree programs.
“We want some awareness that we are here. And a lot of people don't know that,” Reyna said.
The system center has been operating since 2000, but it languished for years in a depressing cluster of portables in a parking lot at Palo Alto College. After Texas lawmakers finally approved the revenue bonds in 2006, A&M rented and refurbished an old elementary school to allow the seed campus to expand.
“Just the move here to this building, it was like a shot in the arm,” Ferrier said.
Now things are moving. Fast.
A&M regents went on a hiring binge to prepare for an influx of students, bringing in Ferrier, a finance director, a marketing director, an academic dean and recruiters. The campus now offers 18 undergraduate programs, up from 13 last year, and five new master's degree programs.
On campus, construction workers are building a faculty lounge and computer lab and putting up walls to create more classroom space. There are also plans to turn the old cafeteria into a small cafe and bookstore for students.
By fall, the campus will have 10 new full-time faculty members and a receptionist.
“We want a live person answering the phone and welcoming people,” Ferrier said.
Since the campus only offers junior- and senior-level courses, most of the students transfer from Alamo Community Colleges, Ferrier said. She's not sure when A&M will be able to offer a full undergraduate program, but it will take years for them to transition to a permanent campus and win accreditation.
Despite the challenges, doubling enrollment by fall seems more and more possible as word spreads, Ferrier said.
“People are beginning to see that this is real,” she said.