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City forms team to ensure equity with I-35 cap-and-stitch

Friday, August 21, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

As the Texas Department of Transportation moves ahead with plans to expand Interstate 35 under the Capital Express project, the city has joined the effort to use the giant construction project as an opportunity to help minority communities recover from the damage the interstate has done to East Austin since the 1950s.

The city has formed a project team and is working on an interlocal agreement with the Downtown Austin Alliance and local stakeholders to develop a process for a “cap and stitch” project to build parks or other amenities where a concrete barrier stands between Central and East Austin today. As TxDOT invests billions to lower the interstate from north of Airport Boulevard to south of East Cesar Chavez Street, the cap-and-stitch solution would also provide new paths for walking, biking or rolling between downtown and East Austin.

“Right now, this is an opportunity to make a transformational project that can be an impetus for great change in the city, understanding that it’s not going to solve the problems,” Colette Pierce Burnette, president of Huston-Tillotson University, said in one of four in-depth community conversations on the I-35 project at KAZI-FM. “But we want to dismantle racism, and one step in dismantling is chiseling away, literally and physically, a divide.”

The Downtown Austin Alliance has led the push for the cap-and-stitch solution. Early this year, the nonprofit invited the Urban Land Institute to survey the neighborhoods surrounding the interstate and create a preliminary vision for what the new public space could do for the city. In addition to drawings of parks and sports fields covering the expanded and depressed interstate, panelists also suggested opportunities to address the interstate’s legacy as a tool of segregation with new right of way for affordable housing or other community services.

“This project really gives us an opportunity to break down some of these physical barriers, if you will, so that we can work on the more emotional things that really create a better community,” De Peart of Downtown Austin Alliance said in a KAZI community conversation.

The city has appointed Mike Trimble, director of the Corridor Program Office, to lead the cap-and-stitch project development with the Austin Transportation Department. Joining KAZI earlier this month, Trimble said the project team is already working with the city Equity Office to consider a “complex tapestry of solutions” to ensure that the project benefits the communities that have been most harmed by the construction of the interstate.

“We talk about equitable distribution of resources and I think there’s a lot that we need to figure out there,” Trimble admitted. “But it could be recapturing some of the land value that could happen, particularly as some of the other capping projects around the country have seen a huge uptick in property values around this area. So that can be a real positive in the value that could be recaptured.”

Trimble said the project team’s first priority is seeking community input for what residents would like to see done with the additional right of way. The team plans to apply an equity assessment tool to the project vision to make sure there are strategies in place to “hedge against” the threat of the project accelerating displacement.

“It’s not just about transportation and mobility anymore because those things are not done in silos,” Yasmine Smith of People United for Mobility Action told KAZI. “They have a real impact on the communities, especially the vulnerable communities, around them.”

The Downtown Austin Alliance is hosting three additional conversations in its Our Future 35 series, beginning with “Healing and Futures Thinking: Facing the Past to Co-Create Our Future” this Saturday at 4 p.m. on KAZI. The conversation will focus on past decisions that led to Austin becoming one of the most racially and economically segregated cities in the nation. Subsequent conversations will take place Sept. 26 and Oct. 24.

TxDOT program manager Susan Fraser said the agency is holding its first public input meeting on the Capital Express Central project later this year.

“We are excited to see what (Downtown Alliance) and the Our Future 35 efforts are in their work with the (East Austin Community) Brain Trust,” Fraser said. “And we are in earnest when we say we want to work with the Brain Trust and Our Future 35 and other stakeholders and community groups to ensure we’re creating the best possible project for the region.”

Rendering courtesy of the Urban Land Institute.

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