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Austin’s Innovation District: The Next Millennium Park?

Philanthropy has a key role to play as Austin's Innovation District is planned and developed. 

Running along IH-35 from Martin Luther King Junior Boulevard south to the river, this area will be an intentional community that brings together science, education, arts and nature. The Innovation Zone’s epicenter is at 15th and Trinity Streets, where UT’s Dell Medical School and the new Dell Seton Medical Center are now under construction, but its impact will stretch west and east, bridging the IH-35 divide. The redevelopment of Waller Creek adds the potential for the area become an iconic Austin gathering place like Chicago’s Millennium Park or Boston’s Kendall Square.

Innovation zones are a way major cities seek to cluster academic, medical and corporate sectors through proximity, vibrant mixed-use development, elements of innovation and community engagement.

Recently, local foundation staff and philanthropists got to hear from several of the project’s leaders.

“We can’t be afraid of density,” said Peter Mullan, CEO, Waller Creek Conservancy. “Proximity is crucial. We have an opportunity to shape the core of our city. How do we want to do that?” Mullan added.

“We are transforming how health care is provided,” said Trish Young Brown, CEO, Central Health“We are thinking of health more broadly. We aim to encourage creativity and collaboration that lifts the whole community.”

Innovation zones take a decade or more to be completed. Austin’s is being led, in terms of timing, by a unique partnership of Central Health, the local public entity that connects low-income Travis County residents to high-quality, cost-effective health care, along with Seton Healthcare Family and the University of Texas at Austin.

“The overall vision for the innovation zone is that Austin is the healthiest city in the country,” says Stephen Scheibal, Director of Community Engagement, Dell Medical School at UT Austin.

The first 50 medical students will arrive in June, 2016, and the hospital will open in 2017. When those projects are complete, the current Brackenridge Hospital complex will be redeveloped, creating the opportunity to create a public space that promotes healthy living.

“Philanthropy is already playing a key role in developing the innovation zone,” said Tim LaFrey, Executive Vice President, Seton Healthcare Family. The Michael & Susan Dell Foundation issued a $25 million challenge grant to help build the new hospital. Every dollar donated is being matched up to that amount.

Spaces that foster creativity and interaction will be key. “The university currently has a prominent physicality,” said Louis Grachos, Executive Director, The Contemporary Austin. The innovation zone advisory group aspires to create a space that goes beyond just buildings. “I envision creating sanctuary,” said Grachos, “where people can gather and interact.”

“Philanthropy is crucial to the innovation zone,” said Mike Nellis, Foundation CEO, “to provide seed capital and ensure that private development includes public benefits like affordable housing and urban parks and spaces for people to gather.”