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TxDOT's Proposals For I-35 Would Raze Dozens Of Properties In Central Austin

Aerial view of the Cherrywood neighborhood near I-35
Aerial view of the Cherrywood neighborhood near I-35

Texas Department of Transportation plans to increase the capacity of Interstate 35 between Ben White Boulevard and U.S. 290 East would displace more than 140 commercial and residential properties, according to an analysis by TxDOT's academic partners at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

The report did not name the specific properties the plans would affect, but they will likely force longtime mainstays like the Austin Chronicle and Star Cafe to leave their current locations. They would also bring the highway uncomfortably closer to some homes in the Cherrywood neighborhood.

"I think it would be rotten, actually," said Shannon Sedwick, co-owner of the decades-old diner Stars Cafe on the I-35 frontage road near East 31st Street. "We really don't have an alternative site. It would be the death of Stars for sure."

TxDOT has said it's open to modifying its plans for the interstate, and the public has until Sept. 8 to weigh in. But the agency may be unwilling to steer too far away from its current direction. TxDOT has said it won't start over its designs from scratch.

Occupants of the properties can try to negotiate terms of their departure before construction is scheduled to start in late 2025.

TxDOT this month unveiled three proposals for a multi-billion dollar expansion of the interstate along an eight-mile stretch through Austin's urban core. The segment of I-35 from Ben White Boulevard in South Austin to U.S. 290 East in North Austin has repeatedly been labeled as the most congested roadway in the state. TxDOT wants to grow the highway's capacity to accommodate larger volumes of traffic.

"There will be a big improvement to the congestion that we're seeing through the downtown area," TxDOT spokesperson Diann Hodges said, adding that the downtown stretch of I-35 has not seen a major improvement since the upper decks were added in the early 1970s.

All three of TxDOT's proposals called for removing the upper decks and adding two high-occupancy vehicle lanes in each direction. HOV lanes could be used by vehicles with two or more occupants.

The first of the three options — lowering the highway's main lanes and tunneling four HOV lanes beneath — already has been discarded by TxDOT for a host of reasons, including its $8 billion price tag. The plan would have resulted in fewer properties displaced compared to the other proposals.

The other two alternatives would cost about half as much to design and construct — around $4 billion each. But they would require razing 142 and 147 properties respectively.

A close examination of TxDOT's schematic maps posted online as part of the month-long public input process show the tracts that would be absorbed into a widened interstate.

TxDOT's proposals would spread the highway outward to envelop areas occupied by homes and businesses. The largest incursions of I-35's right-of-way into adjacent properties would be between Dean Keeton and 51st streets.

Near East 40th Street, for example, schematics show I-35 swelling westward to envelop the headquarters of weekly alternative newspaper the Austin Chronicle. The structure is eligible for placement in the National Register of Historic Places, according to a TxDOT database.

When TxDOT acquires land for transportation projects, the agency tries to negotiate a deal with the property owners. If the parties can't come to an agreement, TxDOT can expropriate the property using eminent domain powers and offer a "fair market value" to the owner, plus the cost of relocating. Relocation assistance is also offered to people renting homes or leasing business space.

For some establishments in the area, having to relocate is a burden they'd rather not have to bear.

"I'd be curious what other options there would be, other than displacing us," said Imran Acosta, owner of the video arcade Texas Gamers Lounge on the I-35 frontage road near Concordia Avenue. "We have spent countless hours and costs upgrading the vintage building we are in, and it's hard to imagine redoing all that again."

Other properties that would cede land to or be taken over by the highway include:

  • The Avalon Apartments
  • Escuelita De Alma Spanish Immersion Daycare
  • Taqueria Los Altos
  • Hector the Barber
  • Hornitos Mexican Restaurant
  • Dreamers DVD
  • Le Rouge
  • Chicas Bonitas strip club
  • Check Mark Typesetting
  • The former Days Inn hotel, now used as a city homeless shelter
  • Austin Bail Bonds
  • Wendy's
  • Bank of America
  • Shell

"It baffles me, it really does," said Ben Growden, manager of Zebra Smoke Shop, one of the businesses whose property would be gobbled up by the enlarged right-of-way.

"We just went through a global pandemic and people are holding on with a thread. This is not going to help," he said. "There's got to be something better."

A seven-acre cemetery eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, Mount Calvary, would cede a strip of land adjacent to I-35 amounting to about a quarter acre. TTI's report said "a recent ground penetrating radar study showed that no grave sites would be impacted."

Besides eliminating apartment complexes on the frontage road like the Avalon, I-35's widening would also push the highway further into residential neighborhoods like Cherrywood, putting a freeway in the backyards of residents along Robinson Street.

"They haven't taken into account enough the effects on the community," Robinson Street resident Beth Stevens said as she stood in her front lawn. "It would be a fundamental change to our neighborhood and the people and places we enjoy right now."

The Cherrywood Neighborhood Association reached out directly to senior officials at TxDOT to outline safety and noise concerns and express support for locally-owned businesses along the frontage road.

"Everybody here is aware that they chose to live near an interstate freeway," Cherrywood Neighborhood Association President Jim Walker said. "But that just reinforces their interest in it being done well."

Walker applauded TxDOT's plan to eliminate the upper decks and urged the agency to consider a creative alternative to the widening options on the table, even if it required spending more money.

"We're one of the largest cities in the country, one of the most vibrant cities in Texas, so it's worth a little bit more effort, a little bit more cost to do an above-average job here," he said.

Three Austin groups have offered alternatives to TxDOT's proposals that would shrink the space occupied by I-35 and allow for the addition of more properties, either by significantly downsizing the interstate, sinking and capping the highway to turn it into a tunnel, or moving the frontage roads inward to overhang over the main lanes.

But a separate analysis by TTI largely dismissed the projects as unfeasible, either because they didn't meet the state's desire for increased roadway capacity or because they involved multi-million dollar features that TxDOT would not finance.

"TxDOT is a highway widening agency, and that's exactly what they're proposing" with their most recent plans, said Adam Greenfield, co-founder of Rethink35, a campaign by local residents to turn I-35 into a boulevard. "It's no surprise."

A TxDOT public comment period is underway now through Sept. 8 to help TxDOT select a plan that will be presented for public feedback in fall 2022. A final decision is expected in summer 2023. Construction is anticipated to start in late 2025.

Copyright 2021 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Nathan Bernier a KUT reporter and the local host during All Things Considered and Marketplace. He grew up in the small mountain town of Nelson, BC, Canada, and worked at commercial news radio stations in Ottawa, Montreal and Boston before starting at KUT in 2008.