As the project rumbles toward conclusion, has the city fixed or fumbled Barton Springs Road?
Mani Shook peered into his tip jar and frowned. A buck and some change were all that had come in from the few customers who had trickled through the door of the Juice Joint so far. "Business is bad," he said, propping his elbows on the counter. "But we're dealing with it the best that we can." On this scorcher of a day, however, the afternoon was still young, and Shook held hope of ringing up more sales of cold smoothies and maybe a few more tips before quitting time.
Taking a longer view, Shook's boss, Ken Vaughn, doesn't sound as optimistic. The reason, he says, is right outside the window, where an army of construction workers effectively set up camp on Barton Springs Road more than a year ago -- and never departed. "They've had us now for two summers, our high season, and business is down at least 80%," said Vaughn, who bought the Juice Joint two years ago and continued building upon a base of loyal customers who still manage to come around -- despite a moving wall of construction-in-progress that seems permanent. Beyond that, Vaughn says, he's relied on "hip-pocket money" just to stay in operation.
Things aren't much better down the street, where a large backhoe moves to and fro, scooping up gobs of dirt within spitting distance of Flipnotics coffee house and clothing store. The place is almost completely landlocked by heavy equipment and construction barriers. "I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy," groaned co-owner Mark Kamburis. "Except Starbucks." He punched a few numbers into a calculator and estimated a 10-20% loss -- between $35,000 and $60,000 -- since construction began. "It's really crunch time now," he said. Similar tales of economic woe can be heard all along the construction route, where many local businesses are barely scraping by.
The Barton Springs Road "improvements" -- from Lamar to Robert E. Lee at Barton Creek -- have been a foregone conclusion since 1984, when voters approved $1.6 million in bonds to finance the job. But both the cost and nature of those improvements have changed fairly dramatically over the long history of the project. At last accounting, the project's price tag had grown to nearly $5.7 million -- $2.5 million from the city's General Fund, $1.8 million from the 1998 bond election, and $1.3 million from the 2000 General Utility Relocation Fund. The 1984 bond money is long gone; it paid for the project's surveying work, right-of-way acquisition, consultant fees, testing and inspection costs, and finally for improvements to Robert E. Lee a couple of years ago.
In the years since voters approved the initial bond funding, Austin mushroomed in size, and traffic on the aging two-lane road grew to 30,000 vehicles per day, placing pedestrians and bicyclists at the mercy of drivers, especially at morning and evening rush hours. Still, plans for the road were put on hold for various reasons over the years, until the project got another jumpstart in late 1997. In the meantime, what had been at first conceived as a neighborhood street improvement plan had progressively become, willy-nilly, a municipal attempt to confront a traffic load that the relatively narrow roadway had never been intended to accommodate, amidst short-fronted and thriving businesses both benefiting from and inconvenienced by that same traffic.
Now -- nearly 20 years after the 1984 vote -- here we are.
Road projects along commercial routes inevitably eat a hole in business revenue, create traffic tie-ups, and leave folks disgruntled all around. But this isn't just any old public works project: this is the complete reconstruction of a treasured two-lane roadway -- the inner gateway to Zilker Park and Barton Springs Pool, and home to "Restaurant Row": where some of Austin's most popular eateries have managed to maintain a brisk trade in spite of the blockages and inconveniences created by the construction. The project has had more than its share of troubles, ranging from prolonged flooding and drainage problems, to an agonizing series of hits and misses in upgrading and realigning old utility lines -- a process complicated by improperly labeled city maps. On at least a couple of occasions, workers inadvertently opened water mains, producing spectacular geysers. "It looked like Old Faithful down there," remarked Robert McCartney, manager of the nearby Pecan Grove RV Park, just hours after one recent gusher.
The frustrations may be entertaining to passers-by but are not so amusing to the contractors or the city. "We did not have the best information to go by," said Lucia Stan, the city's engineer in charge of the project. Disagreements between the city and the contractor over a sewer line didn't help matters, but neither the contractor nor Stan would volunteer many details about the conflict. "We've had some issues because the [initial] wastewater line did not pass the [engineering] requirements," is all Stan would say, adding that the problem has been resolved. Despite rumors to the contrary, both Stan and the contractor, Tom Ryan of Ryan-O Excavating, deny the city has fined the company for construction errors.
All told, the two say the Barton Springs job has been one of the toughest road projects they've encountered. But the project's critics are not very sympathetic, particularly when they note that the city doesn't have to adhere to the same strict development standards it requires of private contractors. If the roadwork had been proposed by a private developer, grumbled one opponent, "This plan never would have made it out of all the city boards and commissions."
Barring another drenching from Mother Nature or any other snafus, the city says it expects to have the project wrapped up by late October. Patience is wearing thin along the avenue, nevertheless. "At the rate the city's moving, the World Trade Center will be rebuilt before the three blocks of Barton Springs are reopened," complained Susan Toomey Frost. Frost, president of the Toomey family partnership that owns property along the road, has kept a close watch on the city's stop-and-go plans for Barton Springs street improvements since the mid-Eighties. So when the wheels finally started rolling on the plan in December 1997, Frost was understandably angry when she learned that the city had held a design charrette with neighborhood representatives and business owners, but had failed to notify the property owners. Frost wasn't the only one. Though not a property owner, Mike Young, co-owner of the successful Chuy's restaurants, was among the most vocal objectors, as was Seri Khayel, managing agent for the Pecan Grove RV Park and the property occupied by Romeo's, and the Wallace family, owners of Mobile Manor and the property leased to Baby Acapulco, among other tracts.
In that respect, the real troubles for the project started long before the work crew arrived on the scene. The process proceeded like many other Austin neighborhood and development issues -- with a great deal of debate and emotional turmoil. "There was so much bloodshed during those meetings," Frost recalled. "Blood and tears all over the floor." Had landowners been brought into the process from the beginning, Frost believes, the project would have probably avoided many of its problems and may have been cheaper. "The business tenants and the owners of the underlying land are, of course, two different sets of people," she said, "and it was from the landowners that the city needed to secure cooperation and land needed to widen the road." By the time landowners did get involved, Frost continued, "plans were formed and, unfortunately, set in stone. We could do nothing to change the course." At least some of the "stone" is now intended to reduce the overall traffic burden on the road, although there remains a good deal of uncertainty whether that goal is advisable -- or even achievable. From the beginning there were several volatile disagreements over the winning design, the most divisive over a literal divider: the elaborate and nearly uninterrupted central median intended to effectively turn the road into "Barton Springs Boulevard."
Frost's preliminary hunch had been correct. The City Council did in fact approve the plan that arrived "set in stone," the one favored by the executive committee of the Zilker Neighborhood Association and former Council Member Beverly Griffith, who championed the proposed median as the new "enlightened view" of road development. Because of Griffith's early association with the plan, some opponents have taken to calling the project "Beverly's Boondoggle," although the official endorsement of the politically active neighborhood association -- then led by Jeff Jack (a former Griffith aide), Robin Cravey (former aide to Council Member Daryl Slusher) and parks advocate Kaye Trybus -- clearly influenced the council's steady support for the initial design. Outside of the Zilker executive committee, however, hundreds of other Zilker residents aligned themselves with business and property owners, and made a strong showing before council on the day of the vote, far outnumbering the supporters. But Griffith's plan prevailed, 7-0.
When the dust finally settles on Barton Springs Road, the new look will feature a raised center median dividing two lanes on either side, with bicycle lanes and wide sidewalks on both sides of the street. The median provides left-turn lanes for access to side streets, but permits only two U-turns, at Sterzing and Kinney streets, for drivers to double back to their destinations. As the business owners see it, this setup will severely limit access to restaurants and other venues -- or worse, discourage customers altogether. "This will make left turns from the east into our front parking lot impossible," said Kamburis, whose coffeehouse is on the southwest side of the road at Kinney. "The only benefit to this whole project as far as Flipnotics is concerned is the added sidewalk and bike lane." That might compensate for the parking spaces Kamburis will lose to the construction. "Hopefully we'll be able to regain that loss with the pedestrian and bike traffic," he said.
One neighborhood theory, yet to be demonstrated, is that the full median will act as a "traffic-calming device" to slow speeders, and thereby encourage at least some of the thousands of commuters to use some other road as a through street into and out of downtown.
But Kamburis was among the neighbors and property owners who preferred the so-called "Nix Plan" (after its designer) which proponents touted as a "consensus" proposal that preserved the center turn lane but with intermittent median "islands." The plan also satisfied neighborhood wishes by including sidewalks, bike lanes, and landscaping. Jim Nix, a local architect who voluntarily drew up the alternative plan, regrets its demise. His design had competed with the winning plan, but lost on a 4-3 council vote. "Obviously they've gone too far to back off from the plan at this point, but I think that once [the full median] is in place they're going to realize how bad it is." The plan is so bad, Nix believes, that it wouldn't pass the council's smell test a second time around now that Beverly Griffith is no longer in office. "If the council voted on it today," he said, "it wouldn't have a prayer."
One concern in particular, says Nix, is the narrow interior lane within which drivers will have to negotiate U-turns in the face of oncoming traffic. Depending on who's doing the measuring, the width of the lane is either 8.5 feet or 10 feet. Though the asphalt-covered lane is literally 8.5 feet -- about the size of a compact parking space -- the city also tallies 1.5 feet of concrete -- the gutter -- as part of the 10-foot lane measurement. Stan, the city engineer, says these types of streets are not uncommon around town.
Frost, for one, is not willing to lay down arms against the median. "What I hope is that somebody on City Council will take the lead and say we don't need a median. We don't have the money to waste now. Just finish the project and let us get on with our lives," she said. "There's still time to make the project better."
It was the median and narrow lanes that prompted Mike Young, the Chuy's co-owner, to hire independently a transportation engineer to study the leading design. The engineer deemed the U-turns unsafe and difficult to negotiate because of the lack of right of way. Young had hoped that finding would forestall the plan or derail it altogether, but the city's own transportation experts countered with the argument that raised medians are safer for both pedestrians and drivers.
More Cars or Fewer?
Young remains unhappy about two aspects of the project: the median, and the current damage the construction is costing his business. "If this wasn't so serious it would be a sitcom," he said. "They come out here with their heavy equipment and glasses will literally shake on the tables." At times, said Young, the vibration has been so strong the restaurant has sustained plumbing breaks due to shifting slabs and various cracks in the walls from pier and beam shifts. One major hassle occurred when the vibration caused the roof of the restaurant's grease trap to collapse. "The city told us we needed to put a whole new grease trap in, so that cost us about $20,000," he said. Overall, Young estimates Chuy's repair bill due to the construction at between $60,000 and $100,000, and adds he is considering sticking the city with the bill.
Despite the construction-related problems, Robin Cravey, a former Zilker executive committee member who endorsed the plan partly as a neighborhood safety issue, has no regrets. "I've always loved the idea of a boulevard, and I was really happy that [the council] stuck by it," he said. While he's sympathetic to businesses trying to stay afloat, he says he's optimistic that the end result will eventually pay off for them. "I think it's going to be fantastic," he said. "But there are still some folks in the neighborhood who are not convinced that this plan will work." Those concerns were aired by dozens of Zilker residents at odds with their neighborhood association leadership. While business owners fear the median and limited U-turns will mean the kiss of death for their establishments, nearby residents oppose the design on grounds of safety. A chief concern is that the median will cause drivers to look for alternate routes -- through their residential streets.
No one knows for certain how the new Barton Springs Road will serve its presumed purposes -- improving traffic flow through the area while also allowing for safer bicycle and pedestrian traffic -- or how accepting citizens will be of the road's new profile. Some business owners -- perhaps in reaction to recent consideration of closing the section of Riverside Drive that passes through Town Lake Park -- say they've heard rumors that the Barton Springs Road project is just the beginning of a surreptitious campaign to eliminate cars from the roadway altogether, eventually creating more open space for parkland.
If that were true, it would mean the city (through several administrations) had spent 18 years and more than $5.6 million dollars for a temporary Road to Nowhere -- and implicitly decided to drive the local business owners out of business and relieve the landowners of their land. Yet to Susan Toomey Frost, that conspiracy theory is not at all far-fetched. Frost herself is a strong parks advocate and an "honorary member" of the Zilker Neighborhood Association, but says she is often irked by the insinuations of its leadership. "They consider Barton Springs Road their road," she said pointedly, "and only their road. But they don't pay taxes on the land that would be affected -- the businesses and landowners do. That neighborhood up there should thank their lucky stars that we've all resisted selling to developers who would mow down the trees and put up big buildings. This is one of the last few places that is Austin, and if it ain't broke don't fix it."
Yet some neighbors continue to hope that the redesign will "fix" the heavy commuter traffic now burdening the road -- although how much is anybody's guess. Jim Nix suggests that if the project does succeed in removing at least 10,000 cars from the roadway, the plan may prove beneficial. Then again, where would those cars -- relentlessly pouring out of and into the suburbs each morning and evening -- go? "I doubt if any other streets would be capable of handling the extra load," Nix said.
So come October (keep all your fingers crossed), should the newly reconstructed Barton Springs Road in fact become everything its designers say it will -- a proud, resplendent, signature new boulevard into downtown Austin -- somewhere else on the west side, commuters will be steaming in traffic and city transportation planners will be greeting a redirected 10,000-vehicle headache.
Can we interest you in some brand-new bonds?