UT Chancellor Bill McRaven, left, and board Chairman Paul Foster at a July 2016 regents’ meeting
State Sen. John Whitmire is plenty upset with University of Texas System officials for purchasing more than 300 acres in Houston for a new campus. His ire is just one of many challenges facing system Chancellor Bill McRaven and Board of Regents Chairman Paul Foster during the current legislative session, as my story online and in today’s print edition details.
A large part of the Houston Democrat’s beef: The acquisition was undertaken without advance consultation with lawmakers. He also complains that the UT System, with its access to the multibillion-dollar Permanent University Fund, a higher education endowment, would have a distinct advantage over his alma mater, the University of Houston, in competing for faculty members and research dollars.
But Whitmire also doesn’t think much of the land itself.
“Are you familiar with the history of this piece of land? It’s environmentally unsound. It’s an oil and gas abandoned field,” he told McRaven and Foster during a Senate Finance Committee hearing last month.
“There’s a reason you’re able to get 300 acres locked up southwest of the dome,” Whitmire said, referring to the Astrodome. “Because no one else wants it. . . It’s a dump. This is nothing but you, in my judgment, bailing out some land speculators.”
McRaven responded at some length a couple of weeks later in a letter to Whitmire, a copy of which the American-Statesman has obtained. The site has never been a landfill, but much of the property is indeed part of an abandoned oil field, with plugged wells, some former oil-field ponds and a former polymer facility, the chancellor wrote. Cleanup is expected to cost less than $2 million, and the sellers agreed to a price reduction accordingly, the chancellor wrote.
Except for limited detention of storm water, nothing will prevent full development of the property, McRaven added.
“Your comments at the hearing, however, would lead a listener to conclude that the Property and the surrounding area are blighted and unlikely to ever be developed,” he wrote. “In fact, the Property is adjacent to apartments, neighborhoods, and commercial buildings, and it is highly likely that these adjacent developed lands had similar characteristics.”
The $215 million price for 307 acres is below the $233 million appraised value, McRaven said. The sellers are Buffalo Lakes Ltd. and related entities. Buffalo Lakes was formed in 2002 by John Kirksey, who cobbled together the land over 15 years. Kirksey’s major partners are Joel R. Scott and Kyle Tauch, the chancellor added.
During the Senate hearing, McRaven said expected to receive recommendations on developing the tract from an advisory panel in Houston by the end of January. In his letter to Whitmire, he said he expected the recommendations by the end of February. When asked about the timing in a subsequent interview with the Statesman, he said: “I don’t really want to put a date on it right now.”