The Austin Chronicle

I-35 Makeover Update

By Kimberly Reeves, March 9, 2007, News

Squint as you look up to the bridge over I-35 between Sixth and Eighth streets – maybe on your way to Municipal Court or the Austin Police Department – and imagine this concrete no-man's land as a future gateway joining East and West Austin.

It's taken about four years for the surrounding neighbors – the Organization of Central East Austin Neighborhoods and East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Planning Team, along with the Downtown Austin Alliance, the East 6th Street Community Association, and Keep Austin Beautiful – to come up with a solution that will take this barrier between East Austin and Downtown and make it as hospitable as it can be for pedestrian traffic. "When architect Juan [Cotera] and I proposed to work on this design, we told the committee that it was this cultural rift between East and West Austin we would like to address – to not let that aspect go unexplored," said architect Phil Reed of Cotera + Reed at the unveiling of the design on Tuesday morning. "That addressing the real cultural problem might mean leaving the physical problem in place and working with it."

"Working with it" means using a budget of about $2.3 million to take the existing parking lots and upgrade them by adding more lighting, wider sidewalks, and more plants. Funding for the project will come from about $600,000 in accumulated parking revenues from the parking lots underneath the bridge, plus a $265,000 grant from Keep Austin Beautiful and $1.5 million in city-backed certificates of obligation. Eventually, the municipal courts will move out of the building, across the freeway frontage road, and these surface parking lots will serve Sixth Street. Add that to the fact the Waller Creek tunnel financing appears to be on its way – with Travis Co. Commissioners Court likely to join the city in a tax-increment financing district later this month -- and it seems that this end of Downtown will see a revitalization in the not-too-distant future.

Of course, it may occur to road-watchers that I-35 through Austin is supposed to be overhauled and expanded sometime in the next decade or so, and one might wonder if the project will be built, only to be torn down again a few years later. "We've kept TxDOT in the loop from the beginning and they're extremely supportive of the project," said Mike Clark-Madison, a spokesman for neighbors pushing the makeover and a former Austin Chronicle editor. "Realistically, reconstructing I-35 through Downtown is still in the indefinite future. However, one of our guidelines in the design phase was to remember that it's always possible that the project will have to be dismantled. So we steered away from ideas that involved, for example, major excavation of the site, or building structured parking, or investing a lot of money in design treatments for the existing pillars and deck."

Funds for the I-35 makeover project and the Waller Creek tunnel project will both be on council's agenda Thursday. Council Member Sheryl Cole, one of the biggest proponents of creating a gateway between East Austin and Downtown, sees the I-35 makeover project as an integral component of that gateway. "I've always seen the Waller Creek project as being the connection bridging the gap between East and West Austin, and this is just a piece of that," Cole said. "This segues from the Saltillo District into Downtown. I think we're about to see a long-term investment into Downtown … that will help the destiny of our city overall."

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