With Collaboration, Scrapped UT Campus Could Still Be Game-Changer For Houston
Earlier this year, after significant pushback to an obscure vision, the University of Texas announced it would scrap its multimillion-dollar investment in a 300-acre Houston campus with a data science institute. Now that local leaders have seen the plan, the deal may be coming back from the dead. At Mayor Sylvester Turner's State of the City address this afternoon, he will urge local universities and leaders to reconsider the idea.
Some major Houston executives are already pushing for the UT campus to move forward, including David Wolff, chairman of Wolff Cos. and former Metro chairman.
"I think we need that data science institute. I’m hoping to unscrap it," Wolff said.
UT has a bold vision of data analytics in energy, healthcare and education, a center researching game-changers from sensor-based technology for predictive maintenance of machinery to automatic grading for teachers.
But no one knew that when it first pitched the campus.
UT bought the land for $215M without disclosing its vision for the project, which did not sit well with state and local officials, including those at the University of Houston. UT System Chancellor William McRaven called off plans to develop the site and said the land would be sold, which has not happened yet.
Wolff agreed the plans for the campus were not well communicated. McRaven provided few details throughout the 15 months that UT discussed its Houston campus. After the 300-acre campus had already been called off, a 36-page report from Booz Allen Hamilton was obtained by the Houston Chronicle, finally outlining details.
Wolff talked to lawmakers, task force members, alumni and other local leaders about potentially reviving the project. Several people agreed, he said, but he recognizes there is opposition to any Houston expansion because of UT's botched rollout. Wolff thinks the initial obscurity over what UT would use the new campus for caused premature criticism. Now that more details have come to light, the idea is worth revisiting. Wulfe & Co. CEO Ed Wulfe agrees.
"There are dozens of other cities that would die to have [a data science institute]. We've got to find a way to do it," Wulfe told the Houston Business Journal.
UT could improve the energy and health industries through intensive data science programs and collaborations with industry and national laboratories. Authors of UT’s plan imagined more efficient and sustainable energy distribution and smarter healthcare delivery.
“The data science institute really wouldn’t hurt U of H. In fact, they should be a part of it. So should Rice, Texas A&M. I think that’s how we revive it,” Wolff said. "Make it a consortium, like the Texas Medical Center."
Rice University has heavily invested in data science, starting a $43M institute and hiring tenure-track faculty members to work with city data. The University of Houston-Downtown also offers a master's in data analytics, and UH will launch a workforce program in the field next fall. A local state-of-the-art data science institute would be a boost for both.
Wolff thinks the campus would help Houston commercially by attracting high-tech companies. Houston’s perception revolves around energy and healthcare, and companies not in those industries can feel left out. A data science institute could attract the type of tech companies that too often choose Dallas or Austin over Houston.
With record sublease space, shrinking deal volume and an oil price that just will not stay up, Houston needs to start looking at other ways to diversify. Tech is a good place to start.
Hear more from David Wolff and other prominent members of the Houston real estate community at Bisnow's State of the Market May 18.