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Metro Drag Project still on drawing board; myriad problems persist

The Gap, Tower Records, Barnes and Noble, By George, Urban Outfitters and Sunglass Hut. These are some of the big-name stores that line the Drag at the University of Texas at Austin.The Drag is a portion of Guadalupe Street that runs adjacent to UT from 21st through 28th streets, similar to the way the Ohio State campus runs from Lane Avenue through Chittenden Avenue on High Street. There are other similarities between these two so-called “corridors.”Both serve as main streets of sorts, not only for the nearby residents and the campus community, but for commuters passing through on their way downtown. Both streets are lined with businesses: a mix of mom and pop stores, university bookstores, and eateries. Both streets also serve as a main gateway into the university. Arguably, both streets are in dire need of restoration and cleaning – in the case of Guadalupe Street, the pedestrian walkways.While OSU and Campus Partners have no specific plans to repair High Street and its sidewalks, various parties in Austin have been trying to do just that for Guadalupe Street for four years. The Drag Project, also known as the Guadalupe Street project, a plan to beautify the street and make it more pedestrian friendly, was first revealed early in 1997. Parties involved include an organization of business owners along the Drag called University Area Partners, UT and Austin’s transportation authority, Capital Metro, which will be financing the project under its Build Greater Austin program.The main idea behind the project is to widen and raise the sidewalks, plant trees, install benches, add street lamps, construct bicycle paths, reroute certain left turns and generally make it more accessible to pedestrians and traffic.”One of the reasons for the street beautification process was to create a better environment that can move the homeless off by bringing more regular traffic in there,” said Steve Kraal, assistant vice president at UT. “Better lighting, better walking, that kind of thing, where it would improve safety for all the people who travel up and down there.”Construction was to begin in January 1998 and was to be completed by autumn of that year, however, problem after problem cropped up.”The first problem was [Capital Metro] came up with a concept and thought they could just quickly put their concept into the street,” Kraal said. “What happened was, they discovered that they actually had to dig up the whole street and change the slope of the street, change the width.” Another concern that was raised was the effect of widening the sidewalks, which in turn would narrow the street. Guadalupe Street will still remain four lanes wide, but each lane will only be 10 feet, instead of the recommended 12 feet. Apart from possibly slowing traffic, the narrower street might also pose a problem to the larger vehicles, but especially for the many buses that pass through. Capital Metro buses are exactly 10 feet wide, excluding sideview mirrors.”That was a major concern,” Kraal said. “It is a tight street for buses.” UT conducted a traffic study of the street, he said, to ensure that changes to the sidewalks did not have a negative impact on the street.”If you stand in the street and watch a bus go by, they’re right on the edge of the bicycle lane. There are some concerns. That was one of the most challenging and frustrating aspects of this,” he said, adding, ” There is no margin for error.”One of more recent hang-ups is the light rail system that Capital Metro is planning to implement along Guadalupe Street, which will be Austin’s first step in light rail construction city-wide- a project aimed primarily at the UT community.According to a Daily Texan article dated April 22, 1998, Capitol Metro Interim Manager Gerald Robichaux recommended to Capital Metro board members in an April 14, 1998 letter that the Drag Project be canceled to make way for the light rail. This issue was quickly resolved when board members voted to continue with the renovations project anyway.”What Metro got out of it was a bunch of very vocal merchants who are their friends now,” said Austin Gleeson, chairman of the UT campus Masterplanning Committee, in response to Capital Metro’s support of the Drag Project. “They are buying those merchants’ support. As far as I could tell, in all of the efforts, the merchants were being pretty damn self-centered about what they wanted to accomplish. “Students don’t need a ‘chi-chi’ shopping district,” Gleeson said in reference to the kind of upscale businesses the beautification project might attract. “Making a ‘chi-chi’ shopping district is the last thing we wanted.”To avoid financing two street renovations- one for the Drag Project, and the other for the light rail- the Drag Project is once again on hold. The issue will be settled in November, when the city votes on the light rail.”I don’t think it’s going to work,” said George Mitchell, president of the University Co-Op, one of the many textbook and university merchandise stores on Guadalupe Street. “As a president of a company that has close ties with the university, I have no problems; I’m not going to go out against it, but I’ve seen it in too many cities. “I used to work in Miami and I saw what they built, and it still hasn’t paid for itself after about 15 years. “Of course the big question is, and as someone concerned with the environment, no statistics have shown that anything’s going to be taken off the road,” he said. “It’s just going to be an extra way of coming down [to campus].”The last meeting that I was at, the indication was that Capital Metro had said they were going to fund the street project. They’re ready to move forward with it no matter what happens with light rail,” Kraal said.Meanwhile, the physical appearance of Guadalupe Street continues to deteriorate as the months go by. The presence of big-name stores does nothing to help the general look and feel of the street: The streets are littered, sidewalks are cracked, structures are in need of restoration. Unlike OSU and Campus Partners in Columbus, UT maintains a hands-off policy – with the exception of the Drag Project.”We really do not want to extend our presence across the street,” Kraal said. “That’s not where we feel our presence should be- at least not at this point in time.”

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