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ULI, Downtown Alliance tout cap-and-stitch design for I-35

Tuesday, November 24, 2020 by Daniel Salazar

A panel at the Urban Land Institute of Austin’s monthly breakfast on Wednesday discussed the cap-and-stitch model for Interstate 35.

Groups like ULI and the Downtown Austin Alliance are behind an I-35 redesign that would cap the highway with parks and open space and provide amenities like bike lanes and wider sidewalks to stitch the east side of town to the west.

Kirk Watson, dean of the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston, a former state senator who was active on transportation issues at the Legislature, highlighted the ways the interstate has been a “racial dividing line” in the city’s history.

“It’s a bad road and it’s a wall that’s played a historical and a cultural negative role in our community,” Watson said.

Linda Guerrero, president of Austin City Advocate, called the highway “an iconic symbol and a physical barrier between white Austin and the Black, Mexican American Austin.”

“We have these generational wounds and imprints and we have layered scar tissue sustaining from these injuries,” Guerrero said.

“We never got a stitch when we fell down,” she added, referring to communities in East Austin. “I think that’s part of why the wound keeps opening up – we never got that real stitch when we were injured, and I’d like to see us finally get that stitch that we’ve been longing for.”

Michael Rodriguez, who is the director of research at Washington, D.C.-based Smart Growth America, said more opportunity for better connectivity is the primary concept behind the cap-and-stitch plan for I-35. He added that other cities across the country have had to confront the legacies of where major roadway infrastructure was built.

“You’re able to create parks or open space or real estate development and what have you,” Rodriguez said. “Eventually, that’s up to the community …. But we need to approach this with context-sensitive design.”

Rodriguez said I-35 and its adjacent areas should be reimagined by residents and policymakers as an “urban boulevard,” a similar message as the new Rethink35 campaign. “Equity is incredibly important to this project,” Rodriguez said.

Watson said Austin residents and businesses need to remain active on lobbying the state as it moves through the scoping process for the Interstate 35 Capital Express Central project.

“We need to have TxDOT and others build this road and their part of the road in such a way that we can do the capping and stitching,” Watson said. “That’s a big part of what our advocacy is here.”

Watson said managed lanes on I-35 will help transit service as Project Connect is built out, pointing to Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority service using managed lanes on the MoPac Expressway.

Casey Burack, the Downtown Austin Alliance’s general counsel and vice president of government relations, moderated the panel discussion. She said safe, walkable bridges and park spaces above the highway will make it easier for residents on the east side to access transit in Austin’s core.

Residents have until Dec. 12 to submit comments on the first part of the environmental review process for work on I-35.

Rendering courtesy of the Urban Land Institute.

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