Sitting on 141 acres of uninterrupted green space in West Austin, the Lions Municipal Golf Course represents many things to many different people, organizations, institutions and government bodies.
As a golf course for 95 years, “Muny,” as it is colloquially known, represents a civil rights symbol. In 1950 it became the first public course to desegregate in the old Confederacy and since 2016 has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Leased as a municipal golf course by the city for the last 82 years, it is where two-time Masters Golf Tournament champion and Austinite Ben Crenshaw hit his first hole in one, according to lifelong friend and business partner Scott Sayers.
The course also represents one of the largest tracts of undeveloped green space left in the rapidly growing capital city, home to cherished flora and fauna, such as hundred-year-old oak trees and various bird species. Many residents say the course represents a rare preservation opportunity—Austin’s chance for its own “Central Park” according to District 10 City Council Member Alison Alter.
For The University of Texas, the course represents a binding responsibility more than a century old. The course is part of a larger 503-acre land gift the university received in 1910—now 353 acres after UT sold parts of the tract—from Col. George Brackenridge. The land’s deed required the entire Brackenridge Tract to be held in a trust and used solely for the benefit of UT. Feeling recent cuts to higher education funding by the state, the course also represents, for UT, an increasingly lucrative asset that could boost revenue.
And now, the golf course represents a challenging situation. UT has determined, after more than eight decades, it cannot afford to continue leasing the land to the city at its discounted rate. Although appraised at $205 million, according to the Travis Central Appraisal District, UT is asking for $109.5 million for the course by May 2020—the expiration date of the city’s existing 31-year lease. The city has made it clear it does not have the money or political will to make the purchase.
A no deal could mean the loss of Muny as many know it. The high stakes have attracted a rare combination of parties to the table, and now the city, university, state, neighborhood and golf community are scrambling to salvage a deal. But time is ticking.
A relationship in the rough
Alter, whose City Council district surrounds the golf course, said it is crucial to remember Muny is UT land, and UT has a responsibility to use the tract to the maximum benefit of students and the university system. She has led the City Council effort to preserve the tract since beginning her term in 2017.
The city has leased the course at the corner of Exposition and Lake Austin boulevards since 1937, though with a few bumps along the way. In 1973, the university got the city to fund a costly realignment of Red River Street to make room for the Frank Erwin Center by threatening to cancel the city’s existing 50-year lease and sell the course to fund a campus expansion. In the 1980s, with the initial 50-year lease coming to a close and land values increasing, the university re-examined how it was using the land. The city wanted to be at the table, and the sides negotiated what would be the 31-year Brackenridge Development Agreement.
In 2006, with UT hurting financially—a report ranked it near the bottom among peers in funds per student—the UT Board of Regents commissioned a task force to review UT’s stewardship of the tract and make long-term recommendations on how to use the land. With 12 years left in the development agreement, the task force concluded in 2007 that letting the golf course lease expire and turning the tract into a revenue driver would reap the most benefit for students. In 2009, a UT-commissioned master plan showed a proposed Brackenridge Village—a dense, mixed-use development directly over the footprint of the golf course.
Although that plan was later ruled unfeasible because it exceeded the infrastructure limits of the land, it signaled to neighbors and advocates that the space was vulnerable. The Save Muny organization, which initially formed when the course was under threat in 1973, was reactivated. Its members led the effort to designate Muny as a national historic landmark in 2016—against the university’s objection—and, along with the West Austin Neighborhood Group, urged and worked with City Council to strike a deal and save the course.
No ‘dance partner’
The sides, however, have failed to reach an agreement. With only five months left until the lease expires, decreasing political will and waning room in the budget, many, including Alter, see a city purchase of Muny unlikely.
Earlier this year, UT agreed to extend the initial lease’s term to May 2020. Richard Suttle, an attorney with local firm Ambrust & Brown representing UT, said nothing is off the table but, UT cannot continue to wait for the city.
“We’re willing to sit down, but we don’t have a dance partner to talk with,” Suttle said. “UT has offered for two years to either lease it at closer to a market rate, or sell it for below market value or trade it for various properties the city owns. And we’ve gotten zero response from it. It’s been pretty frustrating.”
Alter said the state’s new property tax revenue caps to go into effect in October 2020 make the budget less flexible for a golf course purchase, but tools such as bond dollars or hotel tax revenue may allow the city to make a financial contribution. Political will is also an issue. In February, several City Council members said they could not make buying a golf course on the west part of town a policy priority.
Alter remains confident that UT wants Muny preserved as golf course, as political forces, including “powerful alumni” in the area who want the space preserved, have entered the fray.
“We can’t get anywhere unless UT agrees to it, but they have a political problem if they do certain things with Muny,” Alter said. “There is [also] a political dynamic at the Legislature where people really want [Muny to remain] a golf course, and that also plays into this.”
A twosome emerges
Crenshaw, the Masters champion who learned to play golf at Muny, is also a UT alumnus and world-renowned golf course architect. Earlier this year, he and Sayers, his business partner, started the Save Muny Conservancy, a nonprofit independently raising the money to acquire the golf course. They have already raised over $20 million, according to Sayers, and are preparing to launch a celebrity campaign with famous Austinites such as Gary Clark Jr. and Luke Wilson.
If the conservancy buys the course, Muny would continue as a public course with cheap greens fees. Crenshaw committed to redesigning the course himself and making it more welcoming to non-golfers.
Sayers acknowledged the May deadline and hopes the city will help; however, he said the conservancy is prepared to move forward on its own.
“We’re still hopeful the leaders in the city ... will step up and have some meaningful conversations,” Sayers said. “This thing has to benefit everybody. It has to be a win for UT, the city, the residents of Austin and future generations.”
The state Legislature has also made a play to preserve Muny. State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, passed legislation earlier this year to create the Save Historic Muny District. The bill formed a board-appointed committee that is exploring charging a fee to property owners around Muny that would help fund its preservation. The property owners would have to agree to the fee through an election in November 2020. Watson, who said he would “very much like to see it preserved,” has acknowledged that the district is just a tool and could not alone save Muny.
The neighborhood, however, has had a lukewarm response to Watson’s bill. August Harris, a leader with the West Austin Neighborhood Group, said most neighbors do not play golf and do not want the neighborhood solely responsible for funding a public amenity. Harris also said there is mixed sentiment among neighbors regarding Muny generally—many support its preservation, but as a park rather than a golf course.
“For me, my first priority is to preserve the space for community use,” Alter said. “How we do that depends on how it is funded and who is able to step up and fund it.”