There once was an Austin that followed a neat grid pattern laid out by Edwin Waller in 1839. Before Interstate 35 was constructed, one could easily travel north and south on East Side Drive, an attractive boulevard that it replaced. Republic of Austin’s History Blogger Matthew Stewart wrote an excellent piece on the history of Austin’s I-35 and life before the freeway’s assault on the city.
The Interstate Freeway System created under the Eisenhower Administration brought great mobility to Americans across the country, but at a particularly large cost to our nation’s cities. In the era of mass suburbanization, traffic engineers viewed most cities as a place to cut through rather than respecting the integrity of the vibrant neighborhoods beneath them. Austin was no exception, and Interstate 35 was constructed, plowing through the eastern edge of downtown, bifurcating our city into East and West, poor and rich, Black and White. The impact has been profound and enduring.
Fortunately, attitudes have changed in recent decades. The era of highway expansion and urban renewal is viewed negatively today due to the many unintended consequences that have created lasting damage and inequality. Since the 1970s, cities have reexamined those choices and many have sought to regain lost commodities. Cities like Portland, San Francisco, Milwaukee, and, most famously, Boston, have removed segments of downtown freeway to reconnect their waterfronts, provide greenspace, and rejoin neighborhoods that were separated for decades by concrete barriers. Generally speaking, this has been enormously successful, sparking economic revitalization of once derelict downtowns and providing new public spaces to enhance the quality of life for urban residents.
The Plan to Cut and Cap I-35
Now, it may be Austin’s turn for revitalization. Reconnect Austin is a proposal by design firm Black + Vernooy to bury a one-mile segment of I-35 running through the core of the city from Holly Street through 12th Street. The amount of land in question is substantial because burying the freeway effectively frees space currently occupied by on-ramps, off-ramps, and frontage roads.
As you can see in the rendering below, the proposal would create a vibrant streetscape at ground level, recapturing a significant amount of land for parks and open space and additional real estate. This would include an urban boulevard with3 lanes of traffic going each direction, a bikeway, and public park space in the middle. It would also increase walkability by creating wide sidewalks in front of mixed-use buildings. Additionally, the freeway would now be submerged, giving four lanes of traffic running in each direction. This would positively affect travel time through downtown and decrease pollution.
Here’s a rendering of the proposal. The redlines indicate the existing area taken by I-35.
The proposal has definite financial merits. As all of this land is currently in the public right-of-way, no additional land purchases would likely be necessary for construction. Additionally, much of the cost could for the project could be offset by the sale of newly available adjacent property to private developers.
They estimate that new tax revenue, new jobs, and revenue from the sale of 30 acres of developable land will much more than offset project costs. For critics who would like to point to the enormous costs and delays associated with the Big Dig in Boston, it is worth noting that the project in Boston was over three times the size, involved multiple highway segments, and was in a much more complicated context than this proposal.
Republic of Austin fully endorses the sinking of I-35. The temporary inconvenience of construction is far outweighed by the impact this has on future generations of Austinites. Not only will the city receive critical new downtown space for public and private use, it will also create am aesthetically pleasing, safer urban core for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers. And let’s face it, this can reconnect East and West Austin in a way that goes beyond just putting up “ribs” on a freeway. Maybe they’ll add some rail
Tell TxDOT You Want It!
TxDOT is considering sinking I-35. They just finished a virtual open house. Unfortunately, for now they have closed the comment portion. But TxDOT has informed us that there will be a second virtual open house and round of community input meetings from June 24 to July 2. Also, you can comment by emailing them firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information, check out Sinclair & Black’s presentation [PDF] for more details.
Is Austin ready to bury I-35?
Additional reporting by Chris Apollo Lynn.
Original header photo by Valeria Rosalez used under Creative Commons.