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Speedway-East Mall Initiative


Transforming Speedway

By Jamey Smith

Fixing Speedway. It’s been on every UT president’s agenda since Robert Berdahl led efforts to create the Campus Master Plan back in the mid-1990s. Now, for the first time, there is a plan of action in place — not just for Speedway, but also the adjacent East Mall. It’s an ambitious undertaking with designs from a world-class landscape architect, and it promises to greatly improve the student experience. Best yet, it has enthusiastic support across the board among the University’s decision makers. What remains to be addressed is the funding side of the equation, with well over $100 million needed to do it right. That’s where private philanthropy will come in.

Few people have been bigger advocates for revisualizing Speedway and the East Mall than Professor Larry Speck and UT Vice President Pat Clubb. Speck, former dean of the School of Architecture, continues to teach and is a principal architect at the Austin firm Page Southerland Page. Clubb oversees campus planning and facilities management in her role as vice president for employee and campus services.

“A key part of the Campus Master Plan is a Speedway Mall stretching from MLK Boulevard to Dean Keeton Street,” Speck says. “It’s one of the very best ideas. Here is the world’s longest, skinniest parking lot that’s barely a street anymore. Traffic can still go through, but it has no necessary function as a street.”

Clubb agrees. “Speedway and the East Mall form a major axis of campus that is currently underutilized. We have colleges and schools that are on the edges of campus and east of Speedway, and turning the street into a mall is a way of drawing them closer to the heart of the campus. Having a major pedestrian-oriented artery down the north-south axis and then along the East Mall is an opportunity to pull the whole campus together in a way that we have not been able to do.”

Enhancing the campus environment is high on everyone’s list. In addition to an overarching goal of the Campus Master Plan, it was a key recommendation of the Commission of 125, the citizens’ group that looked in recent years at how UT can best serve Texas and the larger society in the next quarter-century. Speck sees a transformation of the Speedway area as crucial to that effort. While car access has been reduced in recent years, he notes that it’s not a place where people tend to linger. “I can go out on the West Mall and I’ll see ten people I know, from freshmen to vice presidents. And it’s because there are nice spots to stop and talk. There’s shade, and you can sit down and have a longer chat if you want to. There’s action — you feel like you’re in the middle of something big, something cool and interesting. That’s what’s missing on Speedway.”

Peter Walker and Partners is a Berkeley, Calif.-based landscape architecture firm that has won accolades for parks, plazas, and gardens around the world, including the American embassy in Beijing and the upcoming World Trade Center Memorial. PWP is well known for its work at the Nasher Foundation Sculpture Center in Dallas and has also completed projects at various University of California campuses, Stanford, and Harvard. The firm won the 2007 National Design Award in Landscape Architecture from the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt Museum.

Walker was brought in initially to design the space around the Blanton Museum of Art, including the courtyard connecting the museum’s two buildings. His concept was well received, and he was commissioned to extend it beyond the Blanton. “Peter’s at the top of his field; he’s just fantastic,” says Speck. “Rather than dodging the exposed tree roots and broken curbs, in his vision of Speedway you’ll want to naturally stop and have a conversation. There will be inviting spaces to sit and chat, to eat, to view art, to take in a performance.”

A new student center to serve the eastern side of campus is currently in final design. Funded by fees that were approved by a student vote several years ago, the building will be just north of Gregory Gym where there is currently a parking lot. Part of the building will be allocated to the College of Liberal Arts, and plans call eventually for another building to help house the space-strapped college. Further north along Speedway, new and repurposed structures will emerge over the next several years with a mix of private and institutional funding. The E.P. Schoch Building, currently in use by Liberal Arts, will be renovated and given to the burgeoning Jackson School of Geosciences, which is headquartered next door. Behind Schoch is a chilling station that is soon to be replaced with the Dell Computer Science Building. At the northwest corner of 24th Street, the Experimental Science Building has been demolished and will soon be reborn as a cutting-edge facility.

While Speedway will be a bustling center of pedestrian activity à la the West Mall, the vision for the new East Mall is more scenic, a gateway. The centerpiece is a replacement for the East Mall Fountain, which is slowly falling apart. A change of grade there must be addressed by whatever sits on the site, and while the current fountain handles it in a somewhat fortress-like manner, Walker has proposed a stepped fountain with a gentle cascade of water. In a nod to the Texas climate, the design allows for the water to be switched off, transforming the dry fountain into an amphitheater; like a Texas creek, it will sometimes be wet and sometimes dry. Another East Mall focal point will be the statue of Martin Luther King, Jr., better showcased than it is currently once the Student Activities Center goes in.

Clearly, Speedway and the East Mall are in for some big changes. The challenge — and the opportunity — will be to weave the infrastructure upgrades into the building projects as they are happening. The cost of the entire project, encompassing several phases, is estimated at $130 million. That may sound high, but as Clubb points out, it’s about the price of a single major building these days. The Speedway and East Mall plan encompasses 16 acres and includes engineering challenges ranging from underground utility work to regrading steep slopes. “This project represents a massive restructuring, and it’s logistically very ambitious and complicated,” she says. “The distance between MLK and Dean Keeton is about half a mile, and we’ll need to completely tear it up in stages to repair and replace the aging utility infrastructure.”

Amid all the changes, another thing that’s almost certain to change is the name. “Speedway” evokes cars whizzing through, belching noise and exhaust — definitely not the image you want for a pedestrian mall. Naming opportunities will be plentiful as donors step forward with gifts for Speedway itself, the areas in front of the Perry-Castañeda Library and the engineering complex, and sections along the East Mall. While some of those newly named spaces promise to be visually striking — that price tag includes a substantial landscaping endowment — Speck and Clubb say that what they are championing is more than a beautification project.

“It’s really a project that can help us transform the learning experience,” Clubb says. “What we are finding is that to be competitive with other universities in attracting the best students and the best faculty, the environment in which they are going to learn and work is fundamental. We have a beautiful campus, but it’s large. Creating welcoming spaces where the UT community can interact is critically important. And that’s what this project will do.”

For more information about supporting the transformation of Speedway and the East Mall, please contact:

Diane Daniel
Executive Director for Development
Toll-free: 866-4UTEXAS (866-488-3927)