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Downtown upgrade under I-35 wins design panel approval

Tuesday, April 29, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

The presentation of the Interstate 35 underpass upgrade project – delayed once by arguments over jurisdiction and a second time by potential conflicts of interest – finally made its way onto the Design Commission agenda on Monday.


This is the same project that was presented to the community a year ago and discussed as far back as 2004. At that time, supporters, including the Organization of Central East Austin Neighborhoods, Keep Austin Beautiful and Council Member Sheryl Cole, pledged a project that would both address the area’s nighttime safety concerns and increase the connection of East Austin to Downtown.


The project, which addresses two parking lots under Interstate 35 between Sixth and Eighth streets, is still substantially intact from presentations a year ago. With a limited budget – and restrictions set out by the Texas Department of Transportation – the project uses the play on lights streaming down the freeway both alongside the deck and in 20 lighted arms that will stretch out in arcs from the bridge into the air above the bridge.


The two parking lots under the bridge – just as often as not a home for homeless derelicts or weekend revelers — will be reconfigured and the medians lightly landscaped. Tall, lighted columns — constructed from broken concrete and galvanized steel of freeway construction – will mark each side of the project.


Architect Phil Reed of Cotera + Reed said the $2.2 million project, which appeared to disappear off the radar screen after the initial presentation, was caught up in red tape of jurisdiction. First, the blocks under the bridge appeared to belong to the city. Then it appeared that the area really belonged to TxDOT. Because of that, this is a state project unencumbered by city requirements of a site development plan or building permit.


“It will be TxDOT that will do the review – an engineering review – of our plans,” Reed said. “I have to say that TxDOT has been really, really great to work with on this project. We started working with TxDOT even before we started working with the city.”


The second delay was because Reed and Juan Cotera both sit on the Design Commission. Ethics Officer John Steiner considered that a conflict of interest, even if Reed and Cotera recused themselves from the final vote on the project. So last night, after a couple months delay, it was Planner Erica Leak who made the project presentation.


Initially, the plan was to try to erase the boundary between Central and East Austin, Leak said. After some reflection, however, Cotera+Reed chose light as a way to both reflect and embrace both the history of East Austin and the context of the project.


Leak described the bridge as being “artfully altered” rather than using the project to filter out visual information alongside the project. The initial plan, rejected by TxDOT and the city, was to drop parking below the sight line. Now the parking lot will be evened out, but it will not be hidden from view.


Commissioners quibbled a bit about whether Interstate 35 acted as a real or simply perceived boundary with East Austin. Austin’s history, however, points to a plan that did use the freeway as a boundary line between white and black culture in Austin. Chair Girard Kinney noted the community had spent the last 30 years trying to minimize that barrier between Central and East Austin.


Commissioner Ellie McKinney was impressed with the flexibility of the lighting elements. These LED lights are intended to both reflect traffic patterns on the freeway deck and could be programmed at various points as part of artistic projects.


“I like the idea that the lighting could also be enhanced by an artist’s conception,” McKinney said. “I like the flexibility of the lighting. It’s an interesting concept.”


McKinney, who once worked in TxDOT’s landscape division, paid special attention to the landscaping details under the freeway, as well as litter abatement. While the area is not intended to be heavily landscaped, Cotera + Reed intends to landscape with different native plants on each side of the freeway—once again, acknowledging Austin’s history.


The project will return to the Design Commission for a review before being presented to Council. Funding from the project will come from accumulated parking fees for the two parking lots under the bridge deck.

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