Planetarium project first envisioned in 2003 gets development partner
Central Austin’s museum district could grow even larger if the Austin Planetarium organization and development partner KUD International LLC are awarded the lease they requested from the Texas Land Commission on property across the street from the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum and the Blanton Museum of Art.
Austin Planetarium announced plans May 26 for the $240 million, 806,000-square-foot development proposed to occupy the southeastern block at MLK Boulevard and Congress Avenue. The project would fulfill the state’s written goals for mixed-use development with a planetarium, science and technology museum, museum gift shops, a 47-story residential tower, retail space and restaurants.
Austin Planetarium Executive Director Torvald Hessel said he is hopeful that the process with the Texas Land Commission could be complete within a year, and KUD Executive Vice President Tom Winter said the project should take between three and four years to build, meaning it could be complete in 2016 at the earliest. Winter said he is excited about the potential cultural impact the project could have.
“That is why we get involved with aquariums and museums. We like those types of projects because we like to leave this kind of an imprint on the community,” Winter said.
The partners have found private funding for one-third of the cost of the museum, and Hessel said with the commitment of KUD and aggressive fundraising, he is confident additional donors and investors will be attracted to the project. Austin Planetarium has offices located in The University of Texas’ Pickle Research Campus, and UT has provided the space free of charge.
Planetarium grows to multiuse
The preliminary design would make the planetarium the largest in Texas. Currently, the state’s largest planetarium is in Killeen.
Building a planetarium in Austin has been Hessel’s goal since 2003. He was working in the high-tech industry, but he could not see himself continuing to retirement in computer programming. Hessel wanted to work in a planetarium as he did in his native country of Holland.
“A planetarium is special. You have kindergarteners, you have grade-schoolers, high-schoolers, adults and professional astronomers, and you have to be able to make sense to everybody. That is a wonderful challenge,” he said.
Hessel bought a domain name in 2003 and created www.austinplanetarium.org. Shortly thereafter, he found like-minded people and joined forces with them to create the nonprofit organization that exists now.
At first, the organization’s board of directors and advisers struggled with the project’s scope, wavering between creating only a planetarium to building a planetarium with a science center and museum.
In addition to a science museum, Hessel said it made sense to add a technology component based on Austin’s culture as a high-tech town and the rich possibilities available for collaboration with the high-tech employers in the region.
“We’re a high-tech town, and we have a lot to do with [high-tech] wafers. The largest wafer factory in the world is right here in town,” Hessel said. “How many people on the street can actually explain what a wafer is, though? That’s an exhibit I would love to have.”
The Austin Planetarium organization eventually settled on a large-scope project with the technology and science museum, which led the organization to set its sights on the location now proposed for the development.
“The obvious location when we finally dared to dream big was across the street from the Bob Bullock and Blanton museums,” Hessel said.
With the passage of SB 1048 in the 82nd Legislative session, Hessel realized his organization needed a multiuse development to be considered for the site.
“They told us, ‘Lovely idea, but it needs to be mixed-use development. We don’t know what that means, so go out and figure it out, and find a development partner,’” Hessel said. “That’s not my forté. I’m an astronomer, so that was somewhat disappointing, but at least it gave us a direction.”
‘Just pure luck’
Austin Planetarium found a partner in KUD to help with the multiuse concept. Hessel said the organizers were connected by former Austin Planetarium board member Brenda Jenkins, who works for Broaddus & Associates, a consulting company, and had heard of KUD through industry contacts. Hessel said it was “just pure luck.”
Winter said he was attracted to Hessel’s vision for the planetarium, and that combined with the lack of a science museum in Austin and the availability of the site made the project attractive.
“We’re working with somebody, a visionary like Torvald, who has established an organization and also has established an amount of donor interest as well,” Winter said.
KUD has built a number of museums and aquariums, and the company has also worked on a similar project incorporating different uses with the University of Central Florida. The project at UCF incorporated commercial space, entertainment uses and educational uses in the campus’ convocation center.
Winter also pointed to the Newseum development in Washington, D.C., which has residential space alongside the journalism museum—which has both exhibit space and broadcasting facilities—just off the Mall and down the street from the United States Capitol.
Winter said a project such as the Austin planetarium can have a huge economic impact on the area. The project is expected to attract more than 600,000 annual visitors, create 650 full-time and part-time jobs, generate $10 million in annual tax revenue and would contribute money in ground rent to the State of Texas. In all, according to Austin Planetarium, the facility is expected to contribute $60 million annually in economic impact.
A walkable museum district
The area surrounding the proposed site of the facility is already a draw for tourists. The State Capitol is four blocks south, and in addition to the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum and the Blanton Museum of Art, there are several other cultural facilities and museums that have formed a coalition called Austin’s Cultural Campus.
The group comprises the Bullock and Blanton museums, as well as the Harry Ransom Center, LBJ Library and Museum, Texas Memorial Museum and the Visual Arts Center. They all cooperate to put on performances, museum crawls and other events to promote the institutions, which are all within walking distance of each other.
“This is something that we are excited about, and it would certainly be a welcome addition to this area,” said Blanton Museum spokeswoman Samantha Youngblood. “It would essentially be right across the street from us and the Bullock, and we hope it would be a bonus and help our attendance.”