In 2004, the city of Austin approved the University Neighborhood Overlay, a comprehensive zoning law that has driven West Campus’ transformation from quirky university neighborhood to booming urban enclave. West Campus’ zoning change was part of a larger urbanization effort meant to promote denser, more walkable and ultimately more sustainable land use in the city. Within a few years, taller buildings populated downtown’s skyline, and words such as “density” and “walkability” entered the local Austin lexicon.
After a lull in construction in 2008 caused by the global financial collapse, cranes and taco trucks are once again common sights in West Campus. Despite the seemingly ubiquitous change occurring across the city, an important piece of civic infrastructure used by thousands of UT students every day continues to decay. The Drag, the commercial and social spine along campus’ western edge, is as dirty and dilapidated today as it was when I arrived on campus for the first time five years ago.
While new shops and restaurants have revitalized commercial life along Guadalupe Street, the street’s infrastructure — the sidewalks, streetlights and bike racks — that ought to help generate a vibrant urban experience instead make the street feel unkempt and dangerous. For whatever reason, the improvements taking place across West Campus can’t seem to make their way east of San Antonio Street.
Every day students, faculty, other Austinites and out-of-town visitors rely on Guadalupe to get to or from work or school, find a place for lunch or run errands on their way home. Several of Capital Metro’s busiest bus lines pass through this section of Guadalupe, depositing and receiving thousands of commuters every morning and evening. Despite its heavy use, the Drag hasn’t received substantial attention.
While the pedestrian environments of streets such as Second, Brazos and Rio Grande are being upgraded, Guadalupe continues to be ignored. Capital Metro claims that improvements will start once the street is prepared for the agency’s new MetroRapid bus lines, but the delivery date for this service constantly seems to move further into the future. The University hasn’t been particularly vocal about improvements along Guadalupe, and Student Government’s city relations agency hasn’t made improving the Drag an issue.
As the front door to campus for thousands of students who call West Campus home, walking Guadalupe can and should be a better experience. A special taxing district, funds from new parking meters or a city bond sale could all help fund improvements. Purposeful design can provide amenities that could make the street a civic space that the University and city can be proud of without compromising the “Keep Austin weird” mindset. As an Austin landmark, we ought to respect the Drag as much as the UT Tower, Barton Springs or any of the other urban icons that give the city its distinct character.
Finke is an architecture and urban studies senior.