The city of Austin's possible rezoning of several University of Texas-owned properties throughout the city is now underway, and on June 22 Austin residents were granted their first opportunity to speak publicly on their desires for the future of West Austin's Brackenridge tracts, home of the historic Lions Municipal Golf Course, or Muny.

The rezoning process, initiated by City Council in December, could result in the reassignment of UT land including the Brackenridge tract on Lake Austin Boulevard as well as the Gateway Apartments tract just east of Muny and MoPac, the Montopolis Research Center on Montopolis Drive north of Hwy. 71, and North Austin's West Pickle Research Campus.

The city's June 22 virtual public meeting covered only the Brackenridge and Gateway tracts and was the first in what will likely be a series of large and small feedback sessions. Jerry Rusthoven, chief zoning officer for the Austin Housing and Planning Department, said the meeting generated interest from nearly 500 Austinites.

Rusthoven previously told Community Impact Newspaper that the undertaking is unique among the hundreds of rezoning cases considered by city staff each year, given that the city itself launched the process and no potential zoning designations are yet under consideration.

"I’m used to responding to what someone’s asking for, not being told, ‘Here’s a blank canvas; go paint it.’ Having to do that with about 500 people all with brushes and paint, it’ll be interesting," Rusthoven said prior to the June 21 meeting.

Although the city is moving ahead with rezoning, Austin and UT have for years been in dispute over whether the university could proceed with any development it chooses on the separate pieces of land under a previous development agreement made between the two entities. The properties'—and Muny's—uncertain status have in recent years sparked the establishment of The Muny Conservancy nonprofit as well as the Save Historic Muny District's creation via state legislation in 2019.

Public feedback opens

Most speakers calling into the June 21 rezoning session, including representatives from city government, the Muny preservation groups and local residents, appeared to voice their support for Muny and the neighboring facilities of the West Austin Youth Association youth sports nonprofit. Leading off the public participation portion of the meeting was District 10 Council Member Alison Alter, whose district includes the Brackenridge tract and who for years has been involved in Muny discussions.

"You don’t need to convince me that we need to save Muny and preserve WAYA. I’m committed to that, and I’m committed to working together creatively to get to a place where UT can have the certainty that they need, development is commensurate with what new and existing infrastructure can tolerate, and Muny and WAYA are preserved for future generations," Alter said.

Following comments from Alter and District 9 Council Member Kathie Tovo, whose district includes the Gateway tract, the majority of the comments during the first portion of the meeting were made in defense of Muny and WAYA. Among the speakers were Scotty Sayers and former professional golfer Ben Crenshaw, co-chairs of the Muny conservancy, who touted the public course's history and community significance as critical reasons for its preservation.

“[Muny] has been a mainstay in my life. Growing up there has taught me how to compete, but at an early age, I was proud of the fact that everyone seemed to get along at that place and be friendly adversaries on the course. ... One could witness this social aspect any day at Muny and to me is part of what I call an incalculable asset for the community, and has been for nearly 100 years," Crenshaw said. "It’s beautiful and welcoming, and provides a peaceful filter in the way of green space among a vibrant and growing city."

Crenshaw and Sayers also each highlighted Muny's place on the National Register of Historic Places as a key reason for preservation. The course in 1950 was the first in the South to desegregate, and many speakers in addition to the conservancy chairs mentioned their views of the property as a civil rights landmark and its history of welcoming African-American athletes.

"Great cities preserve their history and green spaces, and what we do about Lions will say a lot about the social values and culture of our city and UT," Sayers said.

Speakers including David Fawcett, a Windsor Road resident, also commented on the 141-acre course's place in the city's network of green spaces.

“It is truly a unique, historical piece of real estate. But it’s much more than a golf course. It’s a place where nature thrives, that the old go ... and the young, middle and high school boys and girls go to learn many lessons in life," Fawcett said. "Muny contributes much to the health and wellbeing of many in Austin.”

Experienced golfers and golf instructors were also among those calling into the public meeting, with many noting the effect the course had on their own development within the sport.

“In 2005, I came home from Iraq and was not doing good and Lions was a game-changer for me. I’m currently in Arkansas right now caddying at a professional golf tournament and I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for that golf course," said Tim Gaestel, a Leander high school golf coach. "I know that some of you may not play golf, but it’s our green spaces that we have to save."

Nick Lebo, coach of Austin High School's golf team, also said he views the course's accessibility for younger golfers as one of its most important aspects.

“Every day, we have 50-plus students that go to Muny that are able to get outside. Students from East Austin to West Austin. Students of both genders, of all different demographics," he said. "The students are able to go there, they’re able to practice and play as our school funding system continues to shrink ... Being able to have practice facilities that students can afford that are easily accessible is very important to our school district.”

Public feedback for Austin's rezoning of the UT properties, including meetings centered on the other properties scheduled for the week of June 21, will remain open over the summer. Rusthoven said the process could also include smaller group meetings in addition to larger community sessions. Written input may also be submitted online via the project's city engagement page.