Important now: Strong partnerships are vital to executing a singular, cohesive mission and this requires solid leadership and relentless collaboration.
When she arrived in Austin, TX 25 years ago, Michele Van Hyfte was fresh from graduate school and a young professional drawn to the city by its high-quality lifestyle, spirit of potential and natural outdoor beauty.
Back then the city was a fraction of the population it is today, a miniscule of the economic force it would become and projected only a shadow of its profoundly innovative culture.
Little did Van Hyfte know that Austin would eventually be ranked as the 11th largest city in the US, become one of its fastest growing economies, and be so enriched by high level scholastic institutions it could possibly transform an entire industry.
And, she could never have predicted how large of a role she would play in the strategic direction of Austin’s downtown.
Van Hyfte is vice president of urban design for the Downtown Austin Alliance, a non-profit organization tasked with advancing the collective vision for the future of downtown Austin. The organization is actively engaged in long term planning decisions that impact the area and is the managing entity for the Public Improvement District in Austin’s central business district, including the downtown’s newest gem: the Austin Innovation District (ID).
Van Hyfte leads the Board of Directors’ Economic Development Committee as well as planning initiatives related to real estate development, urban design, sustainability and infrastructure projects. She has also been the project leader for the Downtown Alliance’s role in the ID for the past four years.
Anchored by the Dell Medical School, the ID is located within a123-acre area in the northeast quadrant of downtown Austin. In close proximity, are a cluster of other institutions including the Dell Seton Medical Center (operated by Ascension), the University of Texas at Austin and the Central Health Campuses.
While these institutions are benefitting from powerful synergies, several properties and projects are still in the planning or development phase and when complete will build out a broader ID ecosystem.
What makes Austin’s ID different from others around the world is its focus on health innovations which will transform how healthcare is delivered (see more details on the mission of the ID in this edition of CityRevive).
In the following interview Van Hyfte talks about the innovation district’s most compelling projects, how collaborative partnerships have been the key to moving it forward, its current development status during the pandemic and what the plans are for a recovery.
How has Austin’s Innovation District evolved over the years and where does the project stand now?
It has been a slow, tedious process but coming together well. It essentially has encompassed various institutional leaders from the Central Texas region primarily the city of Austin, University of Texas at Austin, Ascension Seton Healthcare, Central Health, our tech industry, healthcare and life sciences industries.
All of these community leaders, institutions and entities, came together in various stages over the past several years. We have had large scale accomplishments along the way, the most significant being the creation of the University of Texas medical district, which is the primary anchor of our innovation district in the northeast quadrant of the downtown.
That was built out about four years ago and includes a brand new teaching hospital and medical school. From that came the need, necessity and desire to advance a mission of transforming healthcare delivery for Central Texas through innovation. The primary aspects of innovation identified are a combination of healthcare, life sciences and technology industries.
We are still in the early stages of developing the real estate adjacent to the medical school but have multiple layers of activity happening, including land we still need to program and infrastructure projects that are on the election ballot for November. Some projects are in the early planning stages, some are not yet funded yet and then we have our flagship building under construction. So, there are bits and pieces at various stages of development, and we keep it all tied together with one vision.
How will the flagship building fit into the ID ecosystem?
The new flagship building is tied to the medical school and teaching hospital but it’s not directly part of those institutions [referred to as the Block 164 building. It’s slated to open in April 2022]. It is ancillary to them and is meant to house the businesses and tenants that want to be close to the medical district.
The building is being developed by the University of Texas and a private non-profit. There have also been real estate professionals, landowners, and people close to the downtown real estate community who have helped to guide decisions around this flagship building. We are actively creating marketing materials to attract the type of tenants we want in the building.
We want to partner with companies who want to collaborate with the University of Texas Medical School and advance the mission of providing better healthcare for our community.
An example of a good partnership is with Merck Pharmaceuticals who located one of their research and development departments at one of the Medical School buildings. They came to Austin and made that decision through discussions with the city and Huston-Tillotson University. The whole point of this is to create a collective ecosystem of partners and this is a successful model we would like to repeat.
The city, chamber of commerce and Huston-Tillotson University got together and made an agreement with Merck to locate in the innovation district to work with the medical school. Now we have a pharmaceutical company tied to an institution of higher learning, the medical school and local government. It’s a multi-faceted, collaborative type of partnership we want to foster more of.
We feel these types of partnerships are what it takes to make the District happen. If it were not for this ecosystem we are creating and for Capital City Innovation and all these partners coming together, this would not be happening. We want to create the glue that forms these partnerships and helps them stay together. This type of collaboration causes innovation and will help change the delivery of healthcare.
How does the Downtown Alliance and Capital City Innovation work together on the development of the ID?
Capital City Innovation is the non-profit organization that was created by Central Health, Seton Healthcare, the Dell Medical School with support from Opportunity Austin and the Downtown Alliance. It was created to advance the execution of the District.
I lead a Capital City Innovation committee that focuses on real estate development and placemaking. We act as a unified stakeholder voice on behalf of all the real estate interests in the District. We liaise with the city of Austin, the state of Texas, Travis County, the transit agency, and various city departments. We have a broad representation of public and private leaders on my committee and try to make sure anything happening is moving in the direction toward the vision of this innovation district.
How has the development of the ID been impacted by COVID-19?
Austin has had a very healthy economy which will likely set us up for an easier recovery. Right now, you can see cranes in the air in our downtown where buildings are being built. The momentum of the prosperity we were riding on before the pandemic is continuing. Will there eventually be a lag that will catch up to us? It could, but I think it will take a little while.
Commercial real estate is such a big question mark right now. Any project under construction or ones that have secured financing will probably continue. However, if you are a developer or a landowner and at the beginning stages of financing your project or programming it, the pandemic has likely caused you to think differently and you may put that project on hold.
I don’t think we will see something that feels like a slowdown for another six to twelve months. But we are in as good a position as any North American city to recover from this pandemic.
What has changed most during this pandemic and which will have lasting impact?
The pandemic has changed how people spend their money and how they move around the city. And people are now putting much more importance on their home environment.
We still don’t have a lot of office workers returning to downtown. They are starting to come back but not enough in mass that it feels like it did before the pandemic, and we don’t know when that will happen.
How people work is going to change. More people may continue to work from home. Companies may change how they combine and design their offices. Also, once people are comfortable with public transit again, when they don’t have to worry about social distancing, we are hoping they get out of their cars.
There is a new heightened awareness of being outside in the open and appreciating nature. I think people will put a greater emphasis on keeping nature in the city and will want more options.
How will the downtown recover from the impacts of COVID-19?
Our community is dedicated to creating resiliency plans to help us to recover from this pandemic and be more prepared for something like this in the future. The Downtown Alliance announced an initiative to create a road map to recovery for downtown Austin. We want to create a strategy for how we are going to recover from this economically, socially, and ecologically. Our primary focus will be on equity and justice from a social perspective.
We are in a discovery process right now and are asking the community: “How do you want to define resilience and recovery and what do we need to do to get there?”
For more information contact Capital City Innovation at: firstname.lastname@example.org or the Downtown Austin Alliance at: email@example.com. Or, go to Capital City Innovation’s website: https://www.capitalcityinnovation.org/ or the Downtown Alliance’s Innovation District website: https://downtownaustin.com/innovationdistrict