When the University of Texas purchased a former magnesium processing plant in North Austin and converted the site to a scientific research center in the late 1940s, the character of the surrounding neighborhood could be described as “cow pastures.” These days, the J.J. Pickle Research Campus shares an intersection with the Domain, the home of Austin’s first professional sports team, and a number of tower projects blowing past 20 floors thanks to the increasing density permitted under the North Burnet / Gateway planning initiative — so while it’s not exactly fair to say the roughly 475-acre Pickle Campus is out of place, the area around it has certainly taken a different path in the last 15 years or so. Considering all the surrounding growth, it’s hard not see the site as a final piece of the region’s development puzzle.
And we’re not the only ones — the University of Texas seems to be thinking about this too, at least in the abstract. A portfolio document uploaded earlier this month by local architecture firm Page includes a tantalizing few details of a vision plan apparently produced on behalf of the university, describing the redevelopment of approximately 390 acres of the Pickle Campus on both sides of the highway into a denser and more modern research center that could potentially integrate a more diverse mix of uses.
Situated within a rapidly growing and densifying area of Austin, the campus land use today is low-density and disconnected. The planning effort explores a comprehensive approach to future land use, program, and organization of the facilities to fully utilize the resource and enhance the institution’s research capabilities.
One of UT Austin’s strategic priorities is to accelerate and enhance research productivity with a ten-year goal of doubling sponsored research. The master plan examines at how Pickle can support a focus on technology commercialization, research infrastructure, and creating an environment that will attract professors and graduate students who will drive research.
The few details shared in the document show the site redeveloped at a much more urban density than its current state, emphasizing its enhanced capability as a research institution but leaving the possibility of other uses on the table — if we had to guess, we’d imagine the plan shares some broad strokes with the UT Dell Medical School’s redevelopment plans for the former Brackenridge hospital site in downtown, which seeks to establish an Innovation District attracting a mix of private research tenants alongside space for the university and other public-facing features.
We would also expect any serious planning process for this site to include a housing component, most critically student and faculty housing with additional potential for a mix of market-rate and affordable construction. Unlike the endless debate over the future of the large UT-owned tracts west of downtown, monied West Austinites have no interest in using the Pickle Campus as a political football, meaning thousands of new residences could potentially rise here without taking away any space from research operations — remember, we’re talking about nearly 400 acres. Although the process might require the decommissioning of a fully-functioning nuclear reactor, oddly enough we don’t think the redevelopment of the Pickle site would cause much controversy for anyone, and the university ought to seize that opportunity.
It’s admittedly a lot of conjecture from just a few pages of a concept document, but anyone with an eye for land use in this area has wondered about the future of the Pickle site for years as we’ve watched the North Burnet region explode in density, so seeing these possibilities even hypothetically discussed is pretty satisfying — at least from the renderings here, it appears the plan would like to see the site developed at a density rivaling or even exceeding that of the Domain, which is remarkably forward-thinking stuff for a city that so rarely builds to accommodate its own future. We’ve certainly come a long way from the days of filming “Office Space” around here.