Public Notice: I-35 Cap(ital Express) and Stitch
Pondering the future of a road with so much baggage
We've been writing about the I-35 Capital Express Central project for quite a while now, and indeed, you're going to be hearing about it for a good while to come, because it's a massive deal: expanding and rebuilding I-35 through the heart of the city, all the way from Koenig Lane to Ben White – one of the busiest sections of highway in the nation and a road with a lot of baggage locally as a literal and symbolic racial dividing line. And both sides of that legacy got extra attention this week.
As Mike Clark-Madison details in "Austin at Large," at left, the Texas Department of Transportation has opened a monthlong virtual open house to gather public feedback, a required step in the National Environmental Policy Act process. TxDOT offers three alternatives but they're all similar in most respects: adding two HOV lanes in each direction, removing the upper deck from Airport Boulevard to MLK and putting the main lanes underground, rebuilding the bridge over Town Lake, and "potentially accommodating a deck plaza in the downtown area funded by others." That emphasis is mine, and that's where the "Cap and Stitch" movement comes in.
A webinar hosted Wednesday morning by Urban Land Institute Austin focused on the "I-35 Cap & Stitch program," an effort to make that deck plaza a reality: capping the tunneled lanes of the interstate with surface-level amenities that can stitch the two sides of town back together again with an "urban boulevard" that incorporates public spaces and transit. Kirk Watson (ex-mayor, ex-state senator, now head of the University of Houston Hobby School of Public Affairs) talked about I-35's history as a racial dividing line in the city, a "screaming monument to racism" as well as "just a bad road," built in 1962 for a much smaller city. Linda Guerrero (longtime Parks board chair, Downtown commissioner) traced the divide back to the city's infamous 1928 master plan, which did "everything it could" to move the Black and Hispanic population into East Austin, with "total disregard for human life and existence" – followed by decades of the KKK, and of UT keeping minorities out and expanding eastward, creating "the non-stop threat of displacement" that continues to this day.
A ULI study panel, working with the Downtown Austin Alliance, prepared a report on the corridor's potential earlier this year, and the groups want to follow up with an action plan: getting TxDOT to commit to a roadway that at least leaves the urban boulevard options open, and meanwhile finding the funding to build it out, perhaps by creating a tax increment financing district. But "the state is going to have to build the highway in such a way that the local community can do the stitching together," said one speaker.
It's not a new idea: The project website features a link to an I-35 Downtown Stakeholder Working Group report from 2014, which makes very much the same recommendations, with a foreword by the group's honorary chair, Kirk Watson.
Meanwhile, a new ULI national report ranks Austin as the second overall real estate prospect in the country, right after Raleigh-Durham, N.C.
The Austin Humane Society's 15th annual Rags to Wags Gala: A Gala Unleashed is this Saturday, Nov. 21, at 6:30pm, and AHS promises "fun and surprises as the animals take over the show." Individual registration is free, but fundraising opportunities include a silent auction, a VIP party-in-a-box, a raffle, and more. Or if you're unable to attend, you can still bid, donate, and buy Golden Tickets from now through the event; see www.ahsragstowags.org for all the poop.
The city of Austin is accepting applications from local businesses and institutions to participate in the sixth annual [Re]Verse Pitch Competition, which matches businesses who produce byproduct waste with entrepreneur business plans that can use that waste as raw material for a new product. Past winners have included dog biscuits made out of spent brewer's yeast and plastic planters made from vinyl record scraps. This year's deadline to apply to become a material supplier is Dec. 9. See details at www.reversepitch.org.