Drag Rehab

Above, drag planners envision wider sidewalks with trees, cafes, benches and lamp posts. Below are two views of Guadalupe from the south, showing a northbound light rail land, bike lanes on both sides of the street and four lanes of car traffic. San Antonio Street would carry the southbound light rail line.
illustrations by Francis Tsai -- Black and Vernooy Architects

Jeanette Nassour, the 43-year owner of the Cadeau gift shop on Guadalupe, is well known for her outspokenness. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that she marched into the office of University of Texas President Robert Berdahl and, she recalls, asked that the Drag be included in UT's Master Plan. According to Nassour, Berdahl was thrilled with the idea. Now, two and a half years later, a Drag makeover plan may finally be taking shape.

With Capital Metro kicking in most of the funding, the Drag project will focus on transportation and pedestrian issues in an effort to beef up foot traffic on the retail strip. Traffic-calming measures, zoning changes, and re-landscaping and redesign projects are slated to make the Drag more inviting and convenient for students and shoppers. Sidewalks will be widened and bike lanes added to both sides of Guadalupe, consequently narrowing car lanes and decreasing traffic speeds.

"You feel like you take your life in your hands crossing the street there," says Kathy Norman, president of the University Area Partners (UAP), a neighborhood group contributing $30,000 to the renovations. "We're going to make it so cars will really know they're in a pedestrian area," she adds. In addition, Guadalupe is under consideration by Capital Metro for the installation of a northbound light rail line in the next decade.

"I think it's the most fun street in town and I think it ought to be respected for its history," says Nassour. In fact, planners on both sides of the street are looking to history to inspire visions of the new Drag. Once there were trolleys, street cafes, and easy movement between UT and West Campus, and planners would like to see that day dawn again with light rail, traffic-calming measures, and a revitalization of street life. For its part, UT plans to shorten the imposing limestone walls fronting Guadalupe and reinstall sloping lawns that stop at the street, while Drag merchants will need to challenge current city zoning ordinances to reinstate sidewalk cafes to the area. "I think restaurants are the thing that'll make the street really pop," says Nassour.

photograph courtesy of Austin History Center -- Austin Public Library

Drag rehab planners want a return to days of sloping green lawns and high foot traffic (above), while today's retail strip on Guadalupe is due for a multi-million dollar makeover (below).

photograph by John Anderson

The UAP, Capital Metro, and UT are paying for the installation of benches, street lamps, and bulletin board kiosks along both sides of the street, as well as for an aggressive campaign of tree-planting. In addition, public art projects -- such as pavement and sidewalk designs -- will be included in the redesign of the area. According to Capital Metro's project manager, Andre Tanner, planners are going for a "European type of flair."

While UAP will continue to fund the "soft" expenses such as architect's and lawyer's fees, Capital Metro's infrastructure improvements are broken down into three phases, not necessarily corresponding with UT's building schedule. Phase One is set to begin in March 1998 between 21st and 24th Streets at a cost of $2.6 million funded out of Capital Metro's Build Greater Austin fund, though final approval of those funds is not slated until next month. Phase Two will cover the stretches from Martin Luther King Boulevard to 21st Street, and 24th to 26th Streets. Phase Three will finish up the project with 26th to 29th Streets. Neither the second nor third phases has been scheduled or budgeted yet.

UT-sponsored studies of the Drag's economic status confirm that increasing numbers of street people and traffic congestion have turned people away from using the area for shopping and eating, a trend which Norman says bodes ill not just for area merchants: "The drag is an important area to Austin, and to the University. It can be a vibrant, wonderful place for people to work, shop, and live. And it could just as easily become a place where people don't want to go." -- K.V.

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