City staff: Cost of Austin's Mexic-Arte Museum repairs exceeds funding earmarked 12 years ago; redevelopment efforts stopped

Roughly 12 years after receiving bond funding and planning improvements for Austin’s Mexic-Arte Museum, city staff concluded last week that the museum’s needs far exceed available funding and stopped all redevelopment efforts.

In 2006 the city approved a bond—a municipal loan—that earmarked $5 million for Mexic-Arte Museum improvements. Twelve years later, only about $60,000 has been used, and the cost of all necessary repairs has reached $23.5 million, according to a report sent to Austin’s mayor and City Council from interim Assistant City Manager Sara Hensley on Feb. 20.

The only way to access earmarked bond funding is by presenting an action plan that lays out how the project will be executed and proves the funds will cover the project cost, said Sylvia Orozco, director and co-founder of the Mexic-Arte Museum. Orozco said the museum’s original ask was for $16 million.

Since 2010 the city has been conducting studies as part of developing the action plan, said David Smythe-Macaulay, project manager with the city’s public works department. It was discovered early on that the redevelopment of the museum would exceed a $5 million price tag, and efforts have been underway to find more funding sources.

Orozco said that the project could not start until all the funding was in order. Last week, city staff said current efforts to redevelop the museum would come to an end.

The Mexic-Arte Museum has sat at the corner of 419 Congress Ave. since 1988. About 17 years ago, the museum entered into a 50-year agreement with the city in which the real estate for the museum would remain secure as long as the museum provided public education and free access.

Smythe-Macaulay said the repairs needed for the three-floor building are staggering. He said the top two floors are blocked off from public use due to structural issues; the heating and cooling system is on its last legs; there are hazardous materials in the building; and the lighting system is outdated.

However, Smythe-Macaulay said it was the building’s deteriorating foundation—made of bricks—that shocked him most. He said the necessary repairs to the foundation skyrocket the cost over earlier estimates.

Potential funding on the way?

On Feb. 23 the city’s Bond Election Advisory Task Force made its final recommendation to City Council on the upcoming 2018 bond. Of the $851 million, the task force highlighted $15 million to the Mexic-Arte Museum’s renovations. Orozco said $3.5 million would come from private donations and the $5 million earmarked in 2006 would cover the rest.

However, the $15 million is far from guaranteed. City Council still has the option to make changes to the bond proposal before it is placed on the November ballot. The fate of the funding will then be at the will of voters. Orozco expressed confidence that the city would vote in favor of the needed funds.