Written by Harrison Fernelius.
Graphic by Emma Robinson.
The Guadalupe Drag hems the edge of the nation’s seventh-largest college campus. In theory, this commercial area should provide a space for students to purchase reasonably priced basic necessities and enjoy affordable dining options, which include diverse cuisines and local fare. Also, considering the academic nature of college, hip and welcoming study space are always in high demand. The Drag should be an amalgamation of these business types and should reasonably include the best that Austin has to offer within walking distance from the University of Texas.
However, every UT student knows, the Drag falls far short of this lofty goal and fails to meaningfully impact the student community outside of the university-owned COOP.
It has not always been this way though. The Drag used to house numerous cheap, local restaurants that were popular hangout spots among the UT community — restaurants like Milto’s Mediterranean Cafe, where one could get a quality meal for just $5.25. Opened in 1972, Milto’s was a UT student staple until its closure late last year. There used to be dozens of cheap, locally-owned restaurants like Milto’s but they have slowly disappeared one by one because of relocation or inevitable bankruptcy. This process has been occurring in silence for many years, but the closure of Don Japanese Kitchen over winter break sent shockwaves through the student community. How could a locally owned restaurant with a rabid fanbase and persistently overflowing crowd be forced to close its doors? Add to this monumental event, the closures of Thai How Are You?, Chango’s Taqueria, and Ruby’s Barbeque have left the student community in disbelief.
Suddenly, the Drag is beginning to look like a corporate hellscape full of national chains — nearly devoid of affordable locally-owned food. Taco Bell mocks the student population as quality restaurants struggle and die.
Who is to blame? None other than the student’s age-old enemy — the landlord. Specifically, landlords on Guadalupe who hike rents up to obscene levels with no regard for the ability of local businesses to pay. Chains can operate their Guadalupe locations at a loss because they represent favorable ad revenue and these chains have large amounts of reserve assets. However, for local businesses with limited locations, a rent increase can be a death sentence. As rents rise, quality businesses flee, while subpar chains replace them. The eventual result is that all businesses are either too expensive for students to enjoy or cheap at the cost quality and experiences.
It does not have to be this way though. There is a solution UT would be wise to implement. All they would need to do is buy the Drag outright using a small portion of their already enormous budget. Then, with UT as Guadalupe’s landlord, rent could be maintained at reasonable prices set by the university. This would in turn incentivize innovative, unique local businesses to set up shop just across the street from campus. Lower rents mean lower costs for businesses and thus the savings are passed down to the student body, potentially making eating out a healthy and affordable option for many. Additionally, this cost would not be permanent for the university. Eventually, the cost of the lump sum would be paid back by the new renters. The current rental costs are far above those of maintenance, so the university would still be able to turn a profit with drastically lower rents.
Further, the university would be able to be selective about which businesses operate on the Drag. Low-quality chain stores and restaurants could be forced out, and the student body could participate in choosing which businesses make the cut. The university could even hold an annual competition among the student body for a concept restaurant that would operate with a rotating one year contract at a fixed location. The options for student-centric retail innovation would be nearly limitless. The bottom line is that the Drag is broken and UT has the means to fix it by controlling rents and driving costs down for both students and small businesses. The ball is in UT’s court, will they continue to cave to the commercial real estate industry, or will they put students and their well-being first?