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Troublesome downtown highway could become a park

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Plans to cut and cap I-35 might be back on the table

A shelved plan to bury part of I-35 and create a park on top could be back on the table, thanks to a recent national report on the state of the country’s freeways.

Freeways Without Futures,” an annual report by the Congress for New Urbanism, put the notoriously crammed stretch of I-35 that cuts through Downtown on its list this year, citing the more than 200,000 vehicles that use it daily as well as the problem it creates for east-west travel by car, bike, foot, and every other way humans move from place to place. (The freeway was also a major element in helping extend informal segregation in Austin long after the practice was made illegal.)

Different plans for the Downtown portion of the Texas Department of Transportation’s impending $8.1-billion renovation of a 66-mile stretch of the highway have been discussed for years. In 2013, influential UT architecture professor Sinclair Black, a principal of Black + Vernooy, formed grassroots nonprofit Reconnect Austin to promote Project Reconnect, an innovative plan for burying, or depressing, the lanes between East Cesar Chavez and East 12th streets and creating a boulevard and green space on top. (Dallas has had success with a similar strategy, which created Klyde Warren Park, as have highway-removal projects in San Francisco, Boston, and Portland.)

As of September 2017, TxDOT was considering two plans for the section of highway, one of which essentially just adds lanes to the upper deck of the highway. The other would depress the highway in the downtown section but would not move the frontage roads or completely cap the highway.

Reconnect Austin plan
Black + Vernooy
Reconnect Austin plan cross-section
Black + Vernooy

Creating a way to reunite East and West Austin physically is, of course, one of the driving forces behind support of the plan. Although making the area safer and more pleasant—as well as necessarily providing more space for new buildings—carries the danger of accelerating gentrification and displacement on the Eastside (a ship that might have already sailed, for the most part), Reconnect Austin maintains that careful planning and execution could avoid those pitfalls.

While it’s unclear if TxDOT is officially reconsidering the Project Reconnect plan, the CNU report points out that its cost would not significantly exceed the estimated $300 million it would take to simply depress the lanes, one of the options the agency has looked at.

The study also cites local support from a variety of sources (including the Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Austin Alliance, neighborhood associations, and City Council members) that could make a difference in the likelihood that the state and city capitalize on a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to reshape downtown Austin.”