Dirty Martin's would be spared under new concept for light-rail
A 98-year-old hamburger restaurant wouldn't be flipped off the map to make space for Austin's new light-rail system under conceptual plans revealed by the Austin Transit Partnership (ATP) — the local government corporation building the 10-mile transit system.
But the owner of Dirty Martin's Place, established in 1926, isn't toasting buns in celebration just yet.
"There was nothing definitive at all," Dirty Martin's owner Mark Nemir told KUT. "After yesterday's conversation [with ATP], I felt bewildered."
The new plans call for routing bus and bicycle lanes away from Guadalupe Street between 27th and 29th Streets. Northbound buses and bikes would be routed down Hemphill Park, one block to the east. Southbound buses and bikes would go down Nueces Street, one block to the west. Most of the Drag south of 27th Street would have a vehicle lane in each direction reserved exclusively for CapMetro buses.
Earlier plans had close to a dozen businesses on the chopping block. Each business owner would be paid for their real estate and get compensated for moving expenses. But they wouldn't be entitled to any money for losing business after being forced to move.
Anger over the displacements, especially Dirty Martin's Place, galvanized opponents of the multibillion-dollar transit project and sparked a petition that's now just shy of 25,000 signatures.
Dirty Martin's is one of five plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the financing mechanism of the voter-approved transit expansion known as Project Connect. The city and ATP deny all claims in the lawsuit and are vowing to fight in court.
In addition to Dirty Martin's Place, three properties along Guadalupe Street would be spared under ATP's revised plans, including Whataburger at Guadalupe and 28th Street. The Ballroom at Spider House on Fruth Street would also avoid losing land to the project.
"We have worked with our partners at the city of Austin and CapMetro to identify a design solution that no longer has any conflicts with the structures in that segment," said Lindsay Wood, an ATP vice president overseeing engineering and construction.
Another property along the light-rail route — part of Riverwalk Condominiums on Riverside Drive — will also avoid the bulldozer. Wood said Riverwalk buildings facing Riverside Drive had been "in conflict" with the light-rail alignment. ATP was working to spare other properties, too, but Wood declined to provide a compressive list, saying the work was still underway.
"We're not done with design, and I hope that we will continue adding to that list," she said.
Seizing fewer properties could save ATP big bucks on the project, whose cost is estimated at between $4.5 and $4.8 billion.
But the plans are still conceptual. The finer details will be hammered out as ATP drafts detailed blueprints. The agency has started a lengthy federal environmental review process that requires a far more detailed explanation to the public than anything revealed so far.
Under the National Environmental Protection Act, ATP has to publish updated designs and seek public feedback. That could happen this fall.
Nemir said he first learned of the change Tuesday in a phone call with ATP's Alex Gale, who heads the agency's real estate division. The 35-year owner of Dirty Martin's fired off a letter to ATP executive director Greg Canally on Wednesday, asking to receive assurance in writing that his business would be spared.
"I have not seen any vote by the ATP Board or the Austin City Council making this decision," Nemir wrote in the letter. "So, who made the decision (and when and in what setting?), and how can I count on that as I go on with my business?"
ATP wouldn't say exactly when the plans were changed, except that it happened after June 2023, when local officials approved cutting the first phase of the project in half, from 20 miles to 10, and removing a $2 billion downtown subway from the voter-approved Project Connect plan
"It is hard to pinpoint a specific moment in time because it's just part of the work we're doing," Wood said.
Attorneys leading the legal effort to upend the light-rail project were "cautiously optimistic" about the future of Dirty Martin's, but argued this wouldn't change the merits of their lawsuit. They argue voters were misled in 2020 when they approved higher property taxes to fund the single-largest transit expansion in Austin's history.
"Since the [2020 election], the City Council and ATP have changed the plan so many times, it doesn’t even resemble what voters approved," attorneys Bill Aleshire and Rick Fine said in a joint statement. "Are there any limits to how much they can undemocratically change the transit plan?"
ATP is holding half a dozen open houses this month as part of a 45-day federally required public input period. The agency is using the meetings to float some tweaks to the system, like shifting or merging train stations and putting bike paths and walkways down the middle of Riverside Drive.
The soonest construction could start, ATP said, is 2027.