The motto of the University of Texas is Disciplina praesidium civitatis according to the official seal, but you hear more about the school’s buzzy modern slogan, which would look so much better on the side of a blimp — “What Starts Here Changes the World.” We mean no disrespect to the rest of the world, but from our perspective that slogan could just as easily be “What Starts Here Changes Austin,” since we would like to see every forward-thinking urban design feature of the university and its adjacent student-heavy enclave West Campus trickle down to the rest of the city in one way or another.
— The ATX (@TheATX1) January 8, 2024
The University Neighborhood Overlay (UNO), a zoning program passed by the city in 2004 trading generous density bonuses for substantial affordable housing requirements throughout the West Campus district, has transformed the entire neighborhood with towers rivaling the scale of downtown itself. Alongside the thousands of income-restricted bedrooms built through its affordable housing features, UNO’s requirements for pedestrian-friendly streetscapes and mixed-use buildings have created a miniature city here in less than 20 years, with walkability and fine-grained density entirely unlike any other part of town.
West Campus serves as a sort of urban laboratory for the rest of the city, with traces of its success visible in newer city zoning schemes meant to incentivize affordable housing with height and density like VMU2, the North Burnet / Gateway plan, and ETOD. Despite its obvious success, the reason UNO was allowed to be such a radical change in the first place is because nobody throws a fit when you massively upzone a neighborhood full of students. It sounds glib, but students are poorly represented as a voter class, and in the case of Austin’s insanely NIMBY-dominated political history that’s fantastic news for getting anything done — residents of the exclusionary neighborhoods north of campus ended up supporting, if not celebrating UNO as a density pressure valve, hoping its burst of new construction would spare their backyards from unsightly shadows and “stealth dorms.”
Students, who largely don’t drive and embrace walkability and density as hallmarks of the college experience, are great guinea pigs for the urban design efforts that would be great all over town but almost invariably incite controversy — another great example of this is the Speedway Mall, a project completed by the university in 2016 that fully pedestrianized the half-mile central road running through the middle of campus, which would have inspired religious-level opposition in most neighborhoods. Here, it was instantly accepted as likely the greatest piece of pedestrian infrastructure in the city, and the rest of Austin is still catching up.
All this is to say that there’s an opportunity coming up to do this type of thing again. The Groundhog Day-esque news cycle over the last couple of years repeatedly bemoaning the death and life of Dirty Martin’s in the face of Project Connect finally found the next gear this week over the news that the nearly-centenarian burger joint wouldn’t need to be torn down for a rail line after all — but owner Mark Nemir and the rest of his litigious friends aren’t convinced, claiming that even if the restaurant remains, Project Connect’s planned pedestrianization of Guadalupe Street in this area between 22nd and 29th Streets would be catastrophic for business and eventually force the restaurant to close its doors anyway.
Letter from the restaurant’s owner Mark Nemir with concerns about whether Dirty Martin’s is actually safe now or not. pic.twitter.com/oAw10mwlwD
— Brad Johnson (@bradj_TX) February 7, 2024
That’s awfully convenient, not to mention the precise inverse of what seems to happen for surrounding businesses every time an adjacent street is pedestrianized, but the reaction here is still massively illuminating. You’re like, oh yeah, this is why every neighborhood isn’t free to grow and change like West Campus. From the perspective of Dirty Martin’s, the important thing about taking cars off the Drag is not if it’s good for the students who live in the neighborhood, but whether it’s convenient for the people who drive through it — for instance, ignoring that more than 60 percent of UT students elect to walk, bike, or use transit instead of driving.
But this is exactly why it’s good news that Austin saved Dirty’s, as long as Austin Transit Partnership follows through and builds the rail and kicks cars off Guadalupe, because I’d like nothing more than to resoundingly prove Nemir wrong by boosting his restaurant’s customer base by anywhere from 18 to 61 percent. The visible success of West Campus is living proof that every now and then this city just needs someone to rip off the Band-Aid, since the story of these pedestrianizations ends up being pretty much the same every time — people think not being able to drive somewhere would destroy their way of life, they adapt, they start liking it, then they can’t imagine things any other way. Dirty’s sits at the axis of this change, and along with the rest of the Drag it stands to profit immensely from these pedestrian and transit access improvements, not to mention the added business from a rail station next door. You’re welcome.