Controversial campus

From: The Fort Worth Business Press

August 12, 2011

TCC set to open $203 million facility

Photo by Glen Ellman

TCC’s downtown campus, photo by Glen Ellman

 

By P.A. Humphrey

Tarrant County College’s new Trinity River East campus, built on the bluffs overlooking the river, will come to life shortly when its first students begin piling into its brand-new classrooms and state-of-the-art labs.

Just what the campus and its sister facility just a few blocks west mean for downtown Fort Worth or its surrounding neighborhoods, however, depends on who’s giving the opinion:

  • It’s been called an undeniably beautiful, unmistakably modern state-of-the-art training facility.
  • It’s been dubbed an opulent Taj Majal on the Trinity and an anti-urban, sunken repellant to walkability.
  • It’s been referred to as a 
financial and cultural boon to downtown Fort Worth – and as a costly boondoggle.

There’s one thing for certain, though. Controversy over TCC’s decision to build on the bluffs hasn’t quieted much over the four years it’s taken to construct the campus.

“It’s a gorgeous campus but it’s functional, too,” said TCC spokesman Frank Griffis. “There’s nothing else like it downtown. It’s 
striking.”

Striking it is.

A sunken tree-studded, three-acre plaza, complete with a “welcome center” and a coffee bar runs under Belknap and Weatherford streets down to the river. A trail leads west along the river to the Trinity River Campus, about a 10-minute walk away. Slab-like granite buildings, huge windows, an outdoor classroom and even a waterfall spilling over one wall – it may be the most visually stunning college campus in the state.

The controversial project, which has overcome plenty of hurdles, including cost overruns and design changes, is now budgeted at about $203 million. TCC officials insist the final price will be lower than that, but not much.

That has the campus’ critics up in arms. They call it “Xanadu,” “The Taj Majal on the Trinity” or merely “The Palace,” and predict that Fort Worth taxpayers will come to regret it was ever built.

With the opening of the new campus, TCC will have two facilities downtown. The Trinity River campus opened in 2009, after the college district bought the RadioShack headquarters building for $238 million. Both campuses have taken high-value properties off the tax rolls, said former Fort Worth City Councilman Clyde Picht, a long-time critic of the project.

TCC is, after all, not a Tier One university but a junior college, he said.

“The purpose of the river campus was supposed to be to provide education and training for technicians supporting medical fields,” he said. “The junior college systems are there to provide low-cost education.”

The college district’s tax rate was raised by about one-third to help pay for the new campus, while a new president for the campus was hired two years ago, Picht said.

“There’s no excuse for spending public money on opulence downtown or anywhere else,” he said.

The Trinity River East campus was needed to offer educational opportunity to the underserved neighborhoods near downtown, said Nina Petty, TCC’s vice chancellor for real-estate and facilities. Adding to the atmosphere of a changing downtown is a bonus, she said.

“Both campuses provide access to higher education for many in the central city and the near North Side of Fort Worth, where our access was too limited,” she said. “The students and faculty bring more vibrancy to an already vibrant and thriving downtown.”
It also has given the college an opportunity to centralize medical programs from its other campuses and complement programs already offered at the nearby Trinity River Campus, officials said.

The east campus is a training facility where students studying nursing, radiology, sonography and respiratory therapy will have access to state-of-the-art classrooms, complete with lifelike mannequins, that resemble a hospital.

There is a growing need for health care workers in the area and interest in the programs has proven to be higher even than they expected, officials said.

Andy Taft, president of Downtown Fort Worth Inc., believes having a second TCC campus downtown will be a plus for business owners as well as the community.

“Physically, it’s created a great connection between the Trinity Uptown area on the bluffs – Samuels Avenue and the historic beginnings of downtown – and the river,” he said. “In the future, it will be an easy way to get to and from one side of the river to the other.”

Taft predicts that having TCC downtown will have a growing positive impact on the central city.

“It provides a civic gathering place for all kinds of meetings and events to the entire community and especially to the downtown community,” he said. “And then, having thousands of students coming downtown every day gives businesses an opportunity to attract them as new customers or tap into them as a potential labor pool.”

Some say the downtown campuses reflect the beginning of a new downtown Fort Worth, as envisioned in the Trinity River Vision project.

An economic development and flood control project, the Trinity River Vision is a master plan that aims to connect the central city and neighborhoods with the river corridor. The project will change the city, radically altering the Trinity River to include a new bypass channel, canals and a downtown lake, and featuring two islands ripe for development.

Bing Thom of Vancouver designed the new TCC campus and has also been heavily involved in designing the TRV project.

Putting students along the shore of the town lake was definitely part of the plan from the beginning, said J.D. Granger, executive director of the Trinity River Vision Authority. Students mean more potential customers for downtown restaurants and stores, as well as for the recreational activities such as tubing on the Trinity that planners envisioned.

“I’m excited about students being a part of that downtown environment. It’s part of what was planned,” Granger said. “They bring enthusiasm. Students see something and they want to try it. We always wanted the Trinity River Vision to create a downtown community that’s vibrant, that buzzes like an anthill.”

The new campus is “everything we thought it would be,” he said.
The campus on the bluffs was built more to meet the desires of the Trinity River Vision project than for educational purposes, say critics, including TCC trustees Robyn Winnett and O.K. Carter, as well as Picht.

“Educating people from the North Side and the neighborhoods near downtown?” Picht said. “Downtown Fort Worth doesn’t care about educating kids. This was a TRV-driven thing and nothing more.”

It is the cost of the project – an estimated $1,200-$1,500 a square foot – that raises the most eyebrows. College officials said the actual cost per square foot is not yet available.

But $1,500 per square foot would far exceed the prices of many other community college and university buildings in the state. According to the 2011 College Construction Report, the median cost for academic buildings is about $339 per square foot.

Taxpayers are the losers, Picht said, as TCC’s board considers raising tuition over the next five years to pay for three new facilities.

“They would also raise the tax rate. They are blaming that on the Legislature,” he said. “If they had tried to stay within the concept of low-cost education, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.”
Increasing educational opportunities in the county is why TCC was founded in the 1960s and what it has continued to do, Petty said.

“TCC has expanded access to higher education through significant expansion of academic facilities,” she said. “The former RadioShack campus was a terrific opportunity for TCC and those it serves.”

The health professions campus was expensive, she conceded. “Working with the chancellor and board during the last 18 months, we have made it less expensive while providing our community the best medical professions academic center possible.”

It’s a good deal for the community, Petty said.

“The taxpayers get a state-of-the-art medical professions academic center that will serve students and faculty for 75 years or more.”

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