Sunday, September 09, 2012

Houston's last opportunity for another university campus?

Recently the Chronicle ran an article exploring options for developing KBR's 136 acres of land in the east end.  Peter Brown even put in his two cents.  It's a pretty amazing piece of land in the core, right on Buffalo Bayou with a downtown skyline view.

The Greater East End District even says it's part of a larger set of 400 underutilized and vacant acres, which you can see some of in this picture:

It also sparked quite a discussion over at HAIF.

Everybody seems to want this land to end up like CityCentre or the Sugar Land or Woodlands town centers, but the retail components of those places absolutely require the vast numbers of upper middle class residents in the many miles of neighborhoods around them to support them (the residents on-site are nowhere near enough support).  Given that this site does not have those income levels surrounding it, I'm not sure what's feasible.  It seems like there are a few options:
  • Go for very high density so the on-site residents can support the retail.  There will definitely be a chicken-and-egg problem for quite a while as it is built out.  It seems unrealistic.  If people are going to live in that kind of density, I think they'd prefer to be inside the Walled Garden.
  • Focus mainly on residential space, and the residents will drive elsewhere for most retail.  Possible, but not very interesting for such a prime parcel of land.
  • Try to do something more tailored to the area demographics, like maybe a town center version of Gulfgate? (which I believe has been quite successful)  The problem is that the key to Gulfgate is being at the intersection of two major freeways, which is not exactly the case here.  Gulfgate is also mainly built around big box stores, which are hard to do in a town center format.
But I think there is a much bigger and more viable opportunity here.  Houston is weak relative to its peer metros in higher education.  We're below the national average, and even behind Atlanta and Miami.


This parcel of land could be the last opportunity for Houston to add a major college campus to the city.  We should consider something similar to what NYC just did with Roosevelt Island, where after a long evaluation process they awarded it to Cornell for a technology campus.  That is likely to eventually be a huge economic development boon for New York.  Of course the City of Houston doesn't own the land, but it could be a facilitator (along with the GHP) to open discussions with the landowner and various universities to explore interest.

There are a lot of potential options:
  • A branch campus of UH, like my proposed Houston Institute of Technology, an elite Berkeley-level campus to go along with the Tier 1 main campus and the open-access UHD campus.  Or the University of Minnesota is an example of a university with multiple campuses in the same metro area (Minneapolis-St. Paul).
  • A branch of Texas A&M.  I like this option a lot.  We're close enough to the main campus it would be easy for faculty and students to travel back and forth, and it opens up a large pool of students for them that would prefer to save money by living at home in Houston instead of College Station.
  • A branch of Texas Tech, like the way Atlanta has Georgia Tech.
  • A branch of UT, since they have them in every Texas Triangle city except us (not counting UT Health in the TMC or UTMB Galveston), including two in the DFW metro.
  • A branch of one of the more elite private or foreign universities.  This is a stretch, but worth exploring.
  • We have traditionally African-American universities like TSU and Prairie View A&M, but I can't think of anything similar on the Hispanic side.  Would that make sense?  It would certainly fit the demographics of east Houston.
  • In a similar vein, maybe a University of the Americas, with a Latin American focus, including both partnerships and exchange programs with schools in those countries.
  • A new private university from scratch, endowed by one or more of our local billionaires.  A long shot, and of course Rice and UH would much prefer that money went to them.
  • Something like what they've done with the Compaq campus, where multiple colleges share the site.  This might even work for branches of foreign universities looking to bring their programs to the U.S.
UH probably wouldn't be thrilled, but a little competition is good (see: SWA going international at Hobby vs. United at IAH), and it would attract more students from across the state and region to Houston, as well as provide new a new higher ed option for locals, which would have to be good for the city.  I think it would ultimately be a net positive for UH as we become more of an academic hub with more opportunities for collaboration.  Don't you think Harvard and MIT strengthen each other in Boston? (not to mention all the other schools up there)  And do you think the Texas Medical Center would be anything close to what it is today if it was a single monopoly institution instead of 50?  We need a synergistic cluster building attitude, not a "not in my backyard" one.

I'm looking forward to your feedback in the comments.  And if you know any of the right people that might initiate or facilitate something like this (or even just start the conversation at the right levels), please pass it along.  Thanks.

Update: The Chronicle of Higher Education picks up on the idea.

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At 10:25 PM, September 09, 2012, Blogger MIke Trozzo said...

I love that you think BIG. Id love to see something that brings top minds to the city like a Cal Poly.

At 10:30 PM, September 09, 2012, Anonymous Rich said...

I'm not sure that there will be as much demand for existing university campuses as there traditionally has been.

It's my understanding that major universities are increasingly offering online classes for free. According to U.Va. Board of Directors Rector Helen Dragas (who led the ouster of President Teresa Sullivan last summer, before she was later reinstated):

"Bold experimentation and advances by the distinguished likes of Stanford, Harvard, and MIT have brought online learning into the mainstream, virtually overnight. Stanford's president, John Hennessy, predicted that "there's a tsunami coming", based on the response to online course offerings at Stanford (one course enrolled an astounding 160,000 students). Michigan, Penn, Princeton, Yale, and Carnegie Mellon are all taking aggressive steps in this direction."

At any rate, student loan debt has already reached a trillion dollar level here in the USA, even as the IRS only lets one deduct $2,500 annually in student loan interest payments made. And one can't even transfer consolidated student loan debt to a new, more affordable lender unless one wants to lose government backing for one's student loan debt. Younger people must nevertheless pay nearly 15% of their self-employment income into a federal social security program from which they're not allowed to opt-out despite how they'll never get to collect from it. See the final line of:

Texas secession couldn't come soon enough...(

At 10:38 PM, September 09, 2012, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I do see the rapid rise of online education, but I also don't think young people want to sit alone at home 4+ years working through online classes. There needs to be a community. Collaboration and discussion and lab spaces. Maybe this campus could house students that take offline and online classes from a range of universities, like the Compaq campus model I mentioned.

At 10:53 PM, September 09, 2012, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The University of North Texas (main campus in Denton) has recently (2010) established a campus in south Dallas and is scheduled to open a new law school in downtown Dallas in 2014. Of course, south Dallas is mostly black and the objective of the UNT-Dallas campus is to provide more opportunity to that community.

Due to the cost involved, realistically I see the only option as a satellite campus of an existing local/regional university which is looking to increase opportunities in the Hispanic community. Is the Greater Houston Partnership pushing for this objective? Is the city of Houston, HGAC or any political leadership pushing this objective? If there isn't muscle behind this idea, I don't see it happening.

In any case, I don't see this type of campus as an elite facility, but rather as increasing the supply in the mid-to-lower tier of college graduates.

At 11:02 PM, September 09, 2012, Anonymous Rich said...

Your points are good ones, as usual, but just as telecommuting appeals to a growing quantity of adult workers for obvious reasons (traffic congestion; time-savings; convenience); online studying has a growing appeal for increasingly financially strapped younger generations. It's my understanding that Stanford's online courses are free. Aren't those of other schools that I just mentioned free, too?

Anyhow, college campuses can be useful for research and development, yes. But federal funds will become increasingly scarce as entitlement-seekers pursue such funds with which to feed their faces, instead.

The feds can still inspire research and development by offering more competitive prizes that enable anyone to compete (as now facilitates). But tinkerers can work their inventive magic away from college campuses (and often do).

What if the land went to creating an incubator center, like the Houston Technology Center, but one which actually doesn't charge as much rent to companies that are producing technological breakthroughs rather than merely re-inventing existing web concepts like HTC's companies do too often?

At 8:53 AM, September 10, 2012, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sam Houston State University - Downtown Houston has a nice ring to it.

But in all seriousness, Sam Houston has an ever increasing number of students from low-income backgrounds that are the first in their families to attend university. Coupled with the strength of both the Colleges of Education and Criminal Justice (as well as a new Nursing Program), it seems like this scenario could be exactly right for the East End - affordable and able to provide careers in practical fields.

At 9:07 AM, September 10, 2012, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't think so. A university will not have as great of an impact as other developments would for the surrounding East End & 5th Ward Districts. Just look at 3rd Ward next to UH. Very little impact has been made by the presence of the university being near 3rd Ward. Universities tend to be on an island of their own economically speaking. Though I do agree Houston could use a full UT campus!

At 10:15 AM, September 10, 2012, Anonymous awp said...

UH just recently got a Petroleum engineering degree, and was not allowed to open a northern branch due to the anti-noncompetitive nature of the degree and new campus approval process here in Texas. I would say the only hope of a new campus is if A&M or UT decides to go for it. I am not sure that the positive benefits of competition argument holds for govt. institutions.

At 4:06 PM, September 10, 2012, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I have no idea how that land should be used, and it's none of my business. I also read the Houston Chronicle article, and discovered that they interviewed their usual suspects about the property.

I also discovered that it is not yet known who the own land owners are just yet. All I know is that none of the usual suspects that the Chronicle interviewed are going to be the actual owners of the new property, but that isn't going to stop any of them from pretending that the land is theirs.

At 4:16 PM, September 10, 2012, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Rich: the online free classes are not offering true credit or credentials, and certainly nothing leading to one of their degrees.

I agree we could use some additional incubator space in addition to HTC, but that's a pretty small amount of space - maybe just one small building or a few floors of a larger one. Nothing like this site.

last anon - to quote my post: "Of course the City of Houston doesn't own the land, but it could be a facilitator (along with the GHP) to open discussions with the landowner and various universities to explore interest."

At 4:44 PM, September 10, 2012, Anonymous John said...

To continue with the academics topic, perhaps something analogous to the Texas Medical Center for universities and colleges to establish collaborative branches.

At 5:38 PM, September 10, 2012, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

John, I really like that TMC model idea. The tough part is the philanthropist to back it...

At 10:16 AM, September 11, 2012, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe T. Boone Pickens?

At 10:54 AM, September 11, 2012, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

> Maybe T. Boone Pickens?

Well, maybe if we wanted an Oklahoma State branch campus... ;-)

At 4:52 PM, September 11, 2012, Blogger QViews said...

I really love the University of the Americas concept, and I agree that the city and the GHP could rally to find a philanthropist who wanted to help establish a new educational institution, perhaps one focused on educating people to participate in international trade.

At 5:05 PM, September 11, 2012, Anonymous Dom said...

I like the concept but it would require the stars to align just right for this to happen. I think with regards to your plans and the stars aligned perfectly it would be best if it was a STEM focused campus.

Otherwise, I think a small fraction of the land should be set aside for a public park and more trails. The remaining land, I suppose goes to the highest bidder.

At 7:43 PM, September 14, 2012, Anonymous Mike said...

Might open the file on what happened when Texas A&M tried to annex South Texas College of Law and create A&M's first law school, about 15 years ago. I believe UH played a significant role in torpedoing it in the legislature. UH and A&M don't get along. That said, the A&M system of I think six schools does not have a single school in a major metro area. They probably wouldn't mind changing that.

At 1:31 PM, September 17, 2012, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You think you kid about OSU, but it sounds like a win-win to me.

At 3:21 PM, September 17, 2012, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Yeah, even if T. Boone got behind it, I'm pretty sure the Oklahoma taxpayers wouldn't be thrilled to subsidize higher ed in Texas...

At 5:59 PM, September 17, 2012, Blogger texasvc said...

The endowment required to build a reputable university from scratch makes this a complete non-starter. Rice ($4.5B) UT ($14B) and A&M($7B) are the only schools with the financial resources to pull this off. Rice just turned down the opportunity to get BCM for free, so they are probably out. A&M is struggling to pay for their acquisition of Wesleyan Law and capital improvements in College Station. UH ($0.6B) is in no position to take on another campus while it struggles to get its current campus to T1 standards. UT would be the logical bet, but its rocky relationship with the state would preclude any major capital infusion to make this happen.

At 11:19 PM, September 27, 2012, Anonymous Luis S said...

I do like the idea of a university in the area, especially one that is focused on technical disciplines (Texas A&M would be awesome). A library, museum, and maybe something like an aviary would probably be beneficial to the area as well. Even if the college were to cover the entire plot of land, there is still enough land surrounding the area to build what most people seemingly want (retail, apartments, etc.).

Although it seems like a good plan, there are many factors needed to make this area into anything at all. In order for this area to develop into anything worthwile (Please, not a walmart), there has to be major infrastructure modifications, perhaps ramps to hwy 59 from clinton dr(Especially 59 south), higher capacity and more direct roads to downtown and east downtown (Probably redoing the street grid in some areas), proceeding with the whole streetcar idea (As long as it's done right), connecting the trail system to the heights / downtown / allen pkwy. Hopefully a portion of this area is reserved for high quality parks as well. I also believe that in order for the area to develop a unique character, there must be some kind of uniform building standard in the area (Vintage Texan architecture/Old Industrial) and a strong effort to preserve aesthetically pleasing older structures.

At 1:36 PM, October 03, 2012, Anonymous Mihir said...

Lots of good thoughts about a research university-centered development for the KBR property.

I'd like to propose a twist - have the centerpiece not necessarily be a place for 18~24-year-olds, but perhaps an affordable, cutting edge, STEM-oriented, but affordable private K-12 "lab school" campus using innovative online (e.g., Khan Academy) and collaborative learning tools. If Rice University can subsidize its undergrads with its generous endowment, perhaps it can take a bit more risk and subsidize an experiment in 21st century K-12 learning.

Since this is such a large site, I'd even propose developing modest-sized, urban-scaled 3-4 bedroom townhouses or smaller ranch homes for families with K-12-aged kids (e.g., more the type you'd see in Meyerland or Westbury rather than River Oaks or Telfair or the Woodlands) as part of this experimental community. Have family-friendly natural and recreational amenities like greenspaces, walking paths, and of course tie it into the Bayou. With sufficient density, you could also justify neighborhood-scale retail/commercial development fronting onto the arterials streets nearby. Maybe market it as "a K-12 campus for 21st century families" instead of the cliched "trendy suburban greenfield mixed use neotraditional dense walkable development".

It may not have to be one singular school, either. Maybe have space so that 2 or 3 models can be offered (i.e., give parents a choice of models within an overall innovative framework - "choice within choice").

There could also be outreach opportunities to the distressed neighborhoods nearby (e.g., the Fifth Ward), perhaps with an option for a KIPP-style curricula to lure motivated parents in those areas who want to give their kids a better chance. This may allay concerns about gentrification, although I'd expect it would come up anyways.

I think what this could and should do is bring an innovative, education-oriented middle-class-family-friendly community into the heart of the city. If successful, it would give a clear indication that there is an affordable option for parents to short-circuit the entire decision architecture of "drive till you qualify" in search of a family-friendly home in a good school district, or live in a cheaper but less-than-desirable house or neighborhood to afford elite private schools. Why should middle class parents, or any parents for that matter, have to make this choice, especially ambitious ones who want something different than the current slate of public (no matter how "high performing") or private schools (no matter how "elite" or expensive).

I think the big pitfall with this concept is that it may not hold up to some developer's, planner's, or public official's notion of "highest and best use". To be sure, it may not be the most short-term revenue-generating land use out there, but if someone like Rice could go out on a limb and make what could be a great investment in the community's future, it could garner more support. Sure, have a Walgreen's there if you must, but I think something bold in the K-12 arena could be a better long-term deal.

At 2:19 PM, October 03, 2012, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Mihir, I do love the idea of K-12 innovation. It's a personal passion of mine. But this would be difficult to pull off. For one thing, I think Rice already sorta does this with the Rice School at Kirby and N. Braeswood. And you'll still have the chicken and egg problem between the retail and the residential. What I really like about the university plan is the ability to invest big and long-term. Maybe that university could include a strong Education school that could have experimental K-12 campuses integrated into it for the student teachers to learn at?

At 4:16 PM, October 03, 2012, Anonymous Mihir said...

Tory - thanks for your insight. I was not aware of Rice partnering with HISD for a magnet school. I agree with the chicken-and-egg retail/residential problem - especially if, as I suggested, the K-12 campus concept would be relative low density for new development inside-the-610. Perhaps this is not the site to do it, at least not as the centerpiece.

But as you suggested, I think some sort of small innovative K-12 component as part of a larger university-anchored development with an education department may be better - overall you'd have more density, more dollars, and more support, with a university probably.

At 4:19 PM, October 03, 2012, Anonymous Mihir said...

I'd also add that as much parents find value with certain HISD schools like Bellaire or DeBakey, and overall programs like Vanguard, I think a private, affordable, innovative K-12 option would have the most likelihood of gaining traction as a 21st century model. I think an affordable private alternative to HISD magnet programs, elite public school districts like Memorial/Spring Branch or Sugar Land/Fort Bend, and elite private schools like Kinkaid, is what I was thinking of.

At 4:39 PM, October 03, 2012, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

> I think a private, affordable, innovative K-12 option would have the most likelihood of gaining traction as a 21st century model.

Wow. Total agreement. You and I are on the same wavelength. Check out the beta website for my new company, Coached Schooling:

At 1:59 PM, October 15, 2012, Anonymous Rich said...

"UT officials say they plan to offer [online] courses that will allow students to earn credits toward a degree..."


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