A highway phoenix

Five-year-old Aaron Tieken (center) dons a UPS store box as he parades down Austin Highway with his mother Patricia (right) and UPS Store employees during the recent celebration of the Austin Highway revitalization project. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Once a grand boulevard, Austin Highway decayed. Now a group of devoted residents is trying to redeem it.

A strange place, Austin Highway. It starts in trendy Terrell Hills, passes by the opulent McNay Art Museum, and before too long, runs past the Dunes Motel, which offers "adult movies in your room." Heading out of town, the corridor is nothing but concrete and asphalt and utility poles as far as the eye can see.

But a group of devotees are set on revamping the corridor and making it attractive for those looking for more than a $25 romp.

Austin Highway once served as the main artery that connected San Antonio to the state capital. Motorists would travel north up Broadway, then angle northeast, passing the Bun 'N Barrel and the Steele $3 Motor Court, and out of town on what today is named Randolph Boulevard.

But construction of Interstate 35 and Loop 410 cut off the thoroughfare and changed traffic patterns. In the ensuing decades, the buildings along Austin Highway revealed signs of neglect; some local motels that once served families of travelers devolved into sleazy one-hour rental venues occupied by streetwalkers. Residents in the surrounding neighborhoods shopped, went to movies, and dined in other parts of the city.

Although it had small pockets of success over the years, with some ventures coming but most going away, by the 1990s Austin Highway looked long in the tooth and seemed headed into an advanced state of urban blight.

The Alamo Drive-In Theater entertained families for a couple of decades before closing its box office on a property that now lies under the asphalt between the new Wal-Mart and the Lowe's. The old theater was the venue for a flea market that, as one local said, "got to be where it sold more fleas than anything else."

And what about those damned unsightly CPS electricity transmission towers - 57 of them, with distribution lines angling off to serve adjacent subdivisions - that line the roadway along one of the busiest sections of Austin Highway?

Jack Judson lives on - and loves - Austin Highway. As president of the Austin Highway Revitalization Project Inc., Judson's goal is to "modify Austin Highway to become a more urban, pedestrian, and transit-friendly boulevard." The organization wants to re-connect Austin Highway to surrounding neighborhoods and attract residents and visitors.

Along the nearly two-mile stretch from Rittiman to Eisenhauer roads, Austin Highway reflects a movement toward increased infill development within the inner city, and is one of eight Neighborhood Commercial Revital-ization Districts. The City targets these areas for development to attract neighbors to work and play without driving outside of Loopland.

On Austin Highway, there is the new Wal-Mart and Lowe's. The old Aloha Inn is coming down, and a Sonic Drive-In is going up. The Southwest Preparatory High School recently opened its doors for enrollment. Numerous buildings, including the old Terrell Plaza shopping center, have had facelifts.

The Texas Department of Transportation plans to spend $470,000 to install a median where the current free turn lane is, possibly decreasing the number of car and pedestrian accidents. Many pedestrians disembark VIA buses and must cross the highway to get to the Texas Workforce Commission office in Terrell Plaza; a median would allow them to cross more safely.

"We're extremely sensitive to the neighborhoods," says Judson. "This is their focal point. They want more sidewalks and we're working on the median, which currently is a suicide lane.

"The city delineated the section from Ritti-man Road to Eisenhauer Road, that's plenty to try to develop. There's more to Austin Highway, but that's another day, another time."

Rob Holliday of Holliday Interests is trying to sell the 9.41-acre former Seven Oaks Resort property and other commercial land from $7 to $15 per square foot, or $3 million for the entire tract. A piece of land at Exeter and Austin Highway, across the street from the Bun 'N Barrel, includes 1.98 acres that is already platted and zoned.

"We're seeing more interest in the highway than we have over the course of the last several years," says Holliday. "Investment activity has picked up, and traffic on the highway has picked up as a result of it. Traffic patterns are beginning to change. Before, it was pretty stagnant."

Holliday compliments Judson for his "energy and enthusiasm that has helped bring the highway along."

Still, what can residents do about the unsightly electricity transmission lines straddling much of Austin Highway?

An Overhead Conversion Fund to bury power lines is set aside annually as 1 percent of City Public Service revenue. But given the extensive concrete and the large number of lines, the Austin Highway project could be too costly.

Burying the lines would require a "great deal of coordination, and would be an expensive endeavor," says Roland Hinojosa, a CPS utility coordinator and administrator of conversion funds.

Hinojosa says it is hard to put a pencil to it, but the cost to bury the lines could "get into the millions." After setting aside money for other city conversion projects, $25 million will remain in the conversion fund for future projects; however, City Council would have to approve funnelling it all into an Austin Highway project, which could be politically difficult as those funds are distributed to 10 Council districts.

Judson acknowledges that burying transmission lines is only on the wish list, but the revitalization group at least wants to dress up the towers somewhat, add sidewalks, and plant some trees in the median sometime next year. He remains the quintessential cheerleader for the revitalization of a familiar old roadway.

"We're trying. We're working with different types of people to get development," he says. "There's a lot of energy out here, and our job is to keep that energy level up. It's as exciting as all get out as far as I'm concerned." •

By Michael Cary


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