When I moved to South Lamar in 2001, South Lamar was teetering between "scruffy" and "seedy." Yes, it had its share of icons, with the Broken Spoke, Saxon Pub, and Taco Xpress. But it had more than its share of porn shops, "lingerie modeling" studios, and run-down laundromats. It seemed to have everyone's share of used car lots and auto repair shops. Almost every block had at least one failing business.
Over the last few years, South Lamar has seen a slow but steady rejuvenation. It has happened one building at a time. The turn started three or four years ago, when a long, low-slung porn shop just south of Oltorf was remodeled and carved up into a row of brightly-colored shops. The street instantly lost one of its more menacing facades. A few blocks north, a studio that had openly advertised "live lingerie modeling" was converted to (what I assume is) a legitimate clothing store. Nearby, a vacant building that had housed a Tuscan art studio was rehabbed into seven spanking new shops, including a barber shop, beads store, and lingerie shop. To keep up with its neighbor, the 1960s-era strip center next door had to get a face lift. Small, new office buildings have sprung up just off South Lamar on Collier. Citibank has opened a new branch.
Some of the recent progress has been more dramatic. Alamo Drafthouse opened in Lamar Plaza. The trailer park at South Lamar and Bluebonnet was replaced by a 24-hour Walgreen's and an office/condo mixed-use project (under construction). Lamar Plaza and Bluebonnet, once gloomy and slightly intimidating at night, are now two of the liveliest spots on South Lamar at night.
South Lamar's rehabilitation is by no means complete. Even more dramatic changes are in the works. At least three condo projects are about to break ground: the Magnolia (across from Lamar Plaza), the Sage (just south of Collier), and the View (just north of Panther Trail). There are (controversial) plans to replace the low-density Stoneridge apartments with a 300-unit vertical mixed-use complex. Just last week, a developer filed a petition to rezone a large tract between South Lamar and Manchaca for vertical mixed use.
So South Lamar is losing its scruffiness. Still, it has a long way to go to become a lively urban street. For starters, it has way too many used car lots and auto repair shops. I counted 39 yesterday, or roughly 13 per mile. Second, there is still very little foot traffic on South Lamar, except around the bus stops. This is partly the fault of used car lots; they are death for street life. But it's not just the lack of pedestrians. There is little cohesion between the east and west sides of the street. For too much of the day, South Lamar feels like an expressway rather than a major urban artery.
I'd like to see South Lamar complete its evolution into an energetic, urban street. It has all of the ingredients for a successful street. It has a healthy base of businesses, with vets offices, a nursery, clothing stores, antique shops, a flooring supply store, yoga, gyms, offices, restaurants, a Half-Price Books, day-care, dry cleaners, toy stores, and computer repair shops. It's got funky businesses. It's got lots of old buildings to incubate funky new businesses. It's got a decent concentration of residential (and more coming). It's got lots of through traffic and a good location. I don't think its evolution is guaranteed, though. A street's development has a life of its own, and you can't necessarily predict its outcome from past events.
The city should do its part to encourage South Lamar's revitalization. There's no need for massive subsidies or elaborate planning. (After all, the revitalization so far has taken place without any public investment or planning.) But there are two things the city can do to foster spontaneous, organic redevelopment:
1. Don't interfere!
Really. Get out of the way. Do not succumb to the temptation to micromanage. Don't try to force one block to replicate a formula that was successful on another block. Don't create incentives for a specific use. Don't create disincentives for a specific use. Just let it happen.
This is harder than it sounds because micromanagement is written into the zoning map. I was screwing around with the city's GIS viewer the other day and came across the zoning map for the area around South Lamar and Bluebonnet. It's a byzantine patchwork of zoning districts:
I tried to outline the various zoning districts in contrasting colors, but I had trouble coming up with enough colors. This 1,000' X 1,000' square has eleven different zoning categories: SF-3, CS, CS-1, MF-2, LO, LO-MU, NO, GR, GO, LR, and LR-MU. There are nine different flavors of commercial zoning.
I'm not sure what this is supposed to be. It is not zoning. As best I can tell, this is simply a pointless codification of the existing land uses.
Although pointless, it is not harmless. This rigidity has a cost. As South Lamar continues to bubble, property owners and entrepreneurs will come up with new uses for these properties. Some will conflict with the city's tight little script. For example, someone may want to open a restaurant in an LO district, or a computer repair shop in a GO district, or (gasp!) a liquor store in a CS district (rather than in a CS-1 district, as God intended). Do everyone a favor. Let them. Don't micromanage. Don't force people to run up thousands of dollars in legal fees just to put a piece of property to its most logical use.
2. Add stoplights.
38,000 cars a day use South Lamar. It is a wide, busy street. There is no way to cross it safely on foot except at a traffic light. From the pedestrian's vantage, a "block" of South Lamar consists of the stretch of road between traffic lights, regardless of where the curb cuts actually are.
South Lamar's blocks are much too long for pedestrian use. There are only eight stoplights between Barton Springs Road and Brodie Oaks Shopping Center, a distance of about three miles. That is more than a third of a mile, on average, between traffic lights. There is no light at all from Oltorf to Bluebonnet, a distance of 4/10ths of a mile. At places, South Lamar looks more like a parkway than a truly urban street.
Suppose you're a pedestrian standing in the middle of one of these super-blocks. If you want to cross the street, you've got just one safe option: you can walk all the way to the nearest light, wait two minutes for the light to change, and walk all the way back down the street. That's a third of a mile -- and at least ten minutes -- just to cross the street.
Predictably, most people won't walk a third of a mile out of their way to cross the street. So they don't cross the street unless they really have to. As a result, there is little circulation of traffic from one side of South Lamar to the other, except at the traffic lights. Rather than uniting the two street facades, South Lamar functions as a barrier dividing them.
Redevelopment on one side of a street ought to stimulate redevelopment on the other side of the street. There should be a synergy between them. But you don't see this on South Lamar. Opposing sides of the street redevelop independently. For example, the renovation of the old Tuscan art studio triggered the strip-center next door to get a face lift. That side of the block has now been completely revitalized. But the opposite side of the street looks just like it did in 2001, and there's no sign it will change any time soon. If pedestrians could freely circulate between one side of the street and the other, the rejuvenation of one business could trigger redevelopment across the street, rather than just next door.
The city needs to bring South Lamar down to pedestrian scale. Double the number of traffic lights. Cut those unfriendly super-blocks in half. If it is convenient for pedestrians to cross the street, someone may eventually give them a reason to cross the street.