New pedestrian mall at UT will take the speed out of Speedway

It’s been 16 years since a campus master plan recognized that growth was shifting the geographic center of the University of Texas to the east, from the iconic Main Building and UT Tower to Speedway. The 1999 plan said transforming Speedway into an area for people, not vehicles, ranked as the university’s most important public space initiative.

Now, after a years-long budgeting process that has seen the price tag lurch from $12 million to $130 million and then down to $75 million, and with the project’s scope taking as many twists and turns as a Hill Country stream, Speedway’s transformation is about to begin. The UT System Board of Regents signed off on the plan in May, and work by Flintco LLC, a unit of St. Louis-based construction giant Alberici Corp., is scheduled to start Oct. 26.

Speedway will essentially be remade into a pedestrian mall. Vehicular traffic and parking spaces will largely be banished between UT’s Blanton Museum of Art and Dean Keeton Street, a stretch of just over half a mile. Asphalt will be replaced with yellow pavers arranged in a herringbone pattern. Sidewalks as such will no longer exist. Ditto for curbs.

There will be dedicated parking spaces for three food trucks, as well as picnic tables and a tent tie-down system for student groups. New light fixtures will have outlets for recharging cellphones and other devices.

The 12-acre area will see a 20 percent decrease in paved surfaces, and the number of trees will increase to 290 from 150, with boxwood hedges adding a touch of “formal and collegiate” character, said Brian Gillett, an associate with PWP Landscape Architecture, based in Berkeley, Calif.

That’s Phase 1, which $30 million in endowment proceeds and $6 million in reserves will buy. It’s expected to be finished by late 2017 or early 2018.

Phase 2 — sprucing up the East Mall, which runs from Speedway to San Jacinto Boulevard and includes a dilapidated fountain that needs to go — has been put on hold until $37 million in gifts and $2 million in reserves can be cobbled together. School officials hope Speedway’s transformation will focus attention and donations on the East Mall portion.

“I’m delighted that this project is finally moving ahead,” said Frederick Steiner, the dean of architecture. “It’s a necessary and needed project, and that’s been recognized for a long time. Essentially we’re turning a city street into a campus.”

Not quite so speedy

Notwithstanding its name, Speedway is a slog for drivers. Thousands of students as well as many faculty and staff members walk along or across Speedway every day. The buildings bordering it include a major library, a student union, a gym, a computer science complex, dorms, a series of science halls and more. And with San Jacinto Boulevard a major bus route, many people enter the campus by walking through the East Mall to Speedway.

Speedway’s makeover is intended to give this nerve center of human activity a relaxed vibe conducive to social interaction. University officials attribute the project’s long gestational period and wide fluctuations in price to several factors.

The initial estimate of $12 million, in 2004, was based on a mostly cosmetic renovation of Speedway and the East Mall. By May 2008, the price had ballooned to $130 million after planners recommended significant regrading, major utility upgrades, relocation of some mature trees and extensive landscaping.

But the recession, coupled with a realization that the plan to raise the entire sum from donations was hopelessly optimistic, prompted recalibrating. Trees would stay put. Regrading and utility work were scaled back.

In addition, officials replaced a design that called for the thoroughfare to have a crown in the middle with one that has a slope to the center. That way, just a single iron “trench grate” will be needed to capture rain runoff rather than a grate on each side.

The fluctuating cost estimates for this and other campus projects have prompted some UT regents to suggest that a more realistic capital budgeting process is needed. One suggestion under consideration is to pencil in a price range rather than a specific figure.

It’s difficult to come up with firm estimates early on, before engineers and architects have been hired, said Pat Clubb, vice president for university operations.

“We all knew that was too expensive,” she said of the $130 million figure. “It really made us step back and rethink this.”

Outdoor venue included

One reason the Speedway project has taken so long to get started is that it didn’t have the sense of urgency that attaches to academic buildings tied directly to the university’s instructional mission, Clubb said. As it turns out, though, the remodeled Speedway will be “a really wonderful outdoor learning environment,” she predicted.

Opportunities for outdoor performances, class time and informal socializing would be expanded even more when the East Mall project is completed, said Robert Rawski Jr., the UT System’s director of facilities planning and construction for the Austin region.

The plan includes replacing concrete walkways with pavers and the fountain with a grand staircase that would also function as a water feature and as amphitheater seating for outdoor teaching and performances. The staircase would have five sections, with two dedicated to stairs and three that could have water flowing down them during non-drought conditions. Ramps would also be built to provide access.

“The fountain doesn’t function well, and when it does work it uses too much water,” said Steiner, the architecture dean.

Although the Speedway project will make life more convenient for pedestrians who flood the corridor, it will create some inconveniences. Between the loss of parking spaces on Speedway for people with disabilities and the addition of some spaces on 21st Street and Jester Circle, there will be a net reduction of about 15 street slots for such people, said Bobby Stone, director of parking and transportation services.

However, additional free spaces for holders of disabled parking permits are being set aside in UT’s Brazos Garage, and the possibility of some sort of shuttle service to Speedway is being explored.

Bicycle riders will still be permitted to use Speedway, but the prospect is less than ideal to some of them because they will have to weave their way among pedestrians.

“Even just some paint to designate a bike lane would be a huge help,” said Andrew Hartford, a senior active in the Longhorn Bike Coalition. “Mixing two different modes of transportation will create conflicts.”

Officials say a designated bike lane would promote faster cycling and thus pose a greater hazard to pedestrians.

“Going back to the late 1990s,” Steiner said, “the goal has been to make Speedway a pedestrian area first.”

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