Whenever a group of my former Austin High School ’71 classmates congregate, invariably we find ourselves comparing the old Austin (good) to the new Austin (bad).
I remember a conversation a while back when a group of us were sitting around a table under the trees at a pizza place. We were commenting on a recent opinion piece by the Austin American Statesman’s humorist John Kelso in which he poses a list of Austin places/things he thinks should be saved from the bulldozer.
In attendance was Ben Wear, classmate and the Statesman’s transportation reporter, who had engaged in a mano a mano with Kelso years ago on the subject of an earlier Austin in dueling columns. These columns were prompted by Kelso’s waxing about the Austin he discovered in the late 60s-early 70s, spurring Ben to offer up his own take of Austin during that period. While Kelso found Austin to be full of charm and great fun, Ben described Austin as a sleepy college town – pleasant enough, but a bit boring, with limited restaurant fare– chicken fried steak or Mexican food. After college, Ben had moved to Oklahoma City, which he found much more interesting than Austin. With that, a follow-up column ensued wherein Kelso roasted Ben, questioned his sanity, and virtually yelled, “Get a rope!”
So, as we ate pizza and drank beer, it was suggested that Ben could reprise the duel by countering Kelso’s places-that-should-be-saved list. Ben, we suggested, could point out the flaws in his list, all with high dungeon and great humor, of course. But, on further reflection, it was hard to quibble about much on the list except for the blue rectangles under the railroad bridge on South Lamar, which Kelso likes because they “give Austinites something to crab about other than the traffic.” Most of the other places, e.g., the Poodle Dog Lounge, Dirty Martin’s, and the downtown Whole Foods, seemed pretty sensible inclusions.
As that idea fizzled out, Ben suggested he could take a different approach, maybe, by coming up with a list of places from the past we wouldn’t miss if bulldozed into history. But that was a stumper. All I could come up with was a block of warehouses on E. 7th that are pretty unsightly, but that and the rest of our offerings were not column-worthy.
Later that evening, as I continued to think about Ben’s ripe-for-the-bulldozer list, I came to the conclusion that this is what happens when you get older: everything in the town you knew from childhood becomes special. Virtually any and all places take up residence on your own personal Memory Lane — whether good, bad, or ugly, you just don’t want any more tear-downs on that lane. It’s like aging body parts. While I might not need them all anymore, I still don’t want to lose my original equipment. I’ve bid adieu to a uterus and gall bladder, but as for the rest, I’d like to exit the stage with as many as possible.
But back to saving Austin things, how about Lions Municipal Golf Course (also called Muny), known for being the first integrated golf course? I admit that (pun alert!) links between Muny and me are fairly weak since I’ve only stepped foot on the course to serve beer at a tournament from one of its golf carts. But Muny has always been a part of my Austin. Driving by the cool, green, tree-filled course in my younger years (which I did often coming from Westlake Hills to West Austin) I often wondered nervously whether a golf ball could possibly make its way over the fence and come sailing down on the roof of my mother’s car, which would not make her happy.
If the UT Board of Regents has its way, however, I might never get to experience that special kind of anxiety again. The University, you see, owns the property, called the Brackenridge tract, and has already voted once not to renew the golf course lease with the City of Austin when it expires. With the lease out of the way, the Board intends to let developers, salivating over the prospect, do their thing on the tract.
Whether or not you know the difference between a driver and a putting iron, there are important reasons (aside from keeping my past intact) to oppose this plan. First, as an ardent tree aficionada, we should not be eliminating green spaces, this being one of the largest open green spaces in Central Texas. This space functions as a living, breathing set of lungs on the edge of a city becoming more densely populated every day. Think of it as a much smaller Central Park, removing carbon dioxide from the air and releasing oxygen every day, every hour, every minute. So, whether preserved as a golf course or a park, the tract is more valuable as an open space than somewhere to plant another shopping mall.
If you don’t care about large, oxygen-producing green trees (or the air you breathe), here’s another reason for you: traffic. As it exists now, the golf course draws a minimal amount of traffic since golfers must obtain tee times, before they drive over to play, thereby spreading the non-residential vehicular traffic over the day. Some, if not all, of the proposed development projects would exchange open, tree-laden land for houses, buildings, parking lots, and cars. In other words, development would draw many more vehicles, whether the development is residential, commercial, or educational. Whatever the project mix, much more traffic will be generated, conceivably at peak periods, clogging the small, single lane streets in the area.
As a resident of Southwest Austin, separated from West Austin by a river, you might question my interest in West Austin traffic. Although I have the aforementioned environmental interest in green spaces wherever they exist, admittedly, my opposition to development on the Brackenridge tract comes with a component of self-interest. Specifically, I’ve heard development proposals that are coupled with a request to the City or Texas Department of Transportation to reconfigure the interchange at Lake Austin Boulevard and Mopac to accommodate the projected increase of traffic to the tract. Such accommodation would entail the creation of a giant and will-it-ever-be-finished construction project right where Mopac, Cesar Chavez, West 5th, West 6th, and Lake Austin come together. In other words, we are talking about a royal pain in the derriere, particularly for downtown commuters.
Before the Board of Regents goes any further down the development highway, wouldn’t it be the neighborly thing to consider Austin’s existing transportation woes and UT’s contribution to Austin’s increasingly intolerable traffic? Only two of the ten regents live here, so maybe most don’t realize (or care) that most days it seems as if all 50,000 UT students are on Austin roads, riding, biking, or driving. Wouldn’t a good neighbor think twice (or maybe twenty times) before imposing any more traffic misery on this city that provides the infrastructure, the roads, the police and fire protection, garbage collection, and all the other city services that permit UT to fulfill its educational mission?
And, one more question for Mr. Kelso: Why isn’t Muny on your list of places to save??! I hope Ben Wear gives you some grief about that.
Read more about the Save Muny efforts and golfer Ben Crenshaw’s personal plea at http://www.savemuny.com/ben-crenshaw.html