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Who Benefits From a Reconnected Austin?

By Robyn Ross, Fri., Jan. 31, 2014

Bo McCarver, chair of Blackland Community Development Corporation, by the I-35 wall Downtown
Bo McCarver, chair of Blackland Community Development Corporation, by the I-35 "wall" Downtown
Photo by Jana Birchum

The "value creation" touted as a benefit of the Reconnect Austin plan may have side effects, says Bo McCarver. McCarver is chair of the Blackland Community Development Corporation, a provider of affordable housing in the neighborhood east of I-35 between Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Manor Road. He wrote a resolution opposing the Reconnect Austin plan. His resolution was supported first by the Blackland Neighborhood Association and the Austin Neighborhoods Council East Sector. Last fall the full body of the Austin Neighborhoods Council (ANC) adopted it.

The resolution says the plan "will not significantly increase traffic flow and is largely cosmetic." It argues that low-income residents are being displaced from central East Austin, without public transit options to accommodate their commutes, and that depressing I-35 would accelerate their displacement. The same increases in land value that would help pay for the project might price out existing residents.

McCarver calls I-35 a legacy of Austin's 1928 segregationist city plan, which designated as a "negro district" the area just east of East Avenue and south of Oakwood Cemetery – City Cemetery at the time. The plan called for concentrating blacks-only parks, schools, and services in this district, which drew the city's African-American population there. When I-35 was built, in the late Fifties and early Sixties, many public facilities and schools in Austin were still segregated. (The upper decks were built in the early Seventies.)

To McCarver, those upper decks set in concrete the dividing line between black and white in Austin. But removing I-35 is different from never having built it; the "opportunity" created by burying I-35 would not be for the people who live in East Austin, McCarver says. It would be for developers. "If you drop that wall you're going to make the Eastside safe for Starbucks," he says.

Displacement is a legitimate concern, says Linda Owen, past president of Klyde Warren Park in Dallas (see "Think About It Bigger," Jan. 17). The Dallas project was in an area that was already upscale and didn't stand to lose affordable housing, but Owen says the investors who wanted to be in Uptown, on one side of the park, have now gotten interested in the more depressed commercial area on the other side of the capped Woodall Rodgers freeway. "What it's done is pushed up the price of rent and filled all the office buildings on both sides of the park. Everybody's happy about that, because the tax base has gone way up, and that supports schools and hospitals and city government." Owen says the Dallas project enhanced commercial real estate rather than affected affordable housing because there simply wasn't any affordable housing nearby. "But if the real estate around [a project] is vulnerable to commercial development, then [those residents'] voices need to be heard."

Reconnect Austin's Sinclair Black doesn't argue about the impact of property taxes on low-income homeowners (or, by extension, renters) in appreciating neighborhoods. But he says gentrification and affordability are two different issues. "Gentrification is the changing land value over time, and that's already happening. Now, people not being able to stay there – that's a valid question. We should have had a tax policy to protect those people decades ago. Cut-and-cap is a year old, but the fact that people have been priced out of their homes by the taxing authority has always been true."

Not everyone in East Austin shares McCarver's trepidation. Reconnect lists among its supporters – organizations that have asked TxDOT to study the plan further – the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Plan­ning Team and the Cherrywood Neighborhood Association. Both groups, along with the Blackshear/Prospect Hill Neighborhood Association and Organization of Central East Austin Neighborhoods (OCEAN), have encouraged TxDOT to include cut-and-cap among the options it's considering for the corridor.

David Thomas, president of the Blackshear/Prospect Hill NA, which covers an area east of the Huston-Tillotson campus between East Seventh Street and Rosewood Avenue, points to the proposal's potential to improve air quality and reduce noise pollution. "I'm confused by the advocates for the poor and for minorities wanting to continue basically the segregation of east and west by keeping this big wall up," he says, noting that he respects McCarver. "On the one hand they rail against what Austin did in moving the minorities over on this side and solidifying the segregation by building I-35 – and yet don't want to tear down I-35 because it's going to dilute this community over here. There's a dichotomy that I don't understand."

Girard Kinney, a Cherrywood resident who has worked on the Reconnect Austin plan, said the ANC resolution, which opposes depressed lanes, could have unintended consequences: "If you pass this resolution, then the official voice of ANC will be against any depression of I-35, and the only alternative TxDOT will see is to build it elevated."

Reconnect Austin suggests some of the displacement problem could be solved by mandating the inclusion of affordable housing among the new units to be built on the land its plan would redevelop. Whether this housing would accommodate the working families McCarver is concerned about remains to be seen.

Working-class Austinites who move to places like Lockhart and Pfluger­ville, where housing is less expensive, will have a "double tax," McCarver says, because they'll be forced to commute back in to jobs in Austin, and the current lack of public transit options means they'll need cars. They'll need to pay the associated expenses like insurance and gas, plus they'll be on the metro region's choked freeways – including I-35.

This is why McCarver wants to see commuter transit routes for displaced populations on Highways 290, 71, and I-35 prioritized ahead of Recon­nect. "If you're going to tax us out of town, give us a way to get back to town affordably," he says. .

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