The three men — an architect, an engineer and a real estate manager — sat there last week at the Headliners Club high above downtown Austin, Interstate 35 a few blocks away over their right shoulders, talking about what could be.
During the hour they spoke, probably 10,000 cars chugged through the milelong stretch of I-35 and its frontage roads between Lady Bird Lake and East 11th Street. Given the noise and fumes and expanse of concrete and asphalt, it is safe to say that no Austinite woke up that day and decided to go to I-35 downtown for pleasure. But all three people on the Urban Land Institute panel, including the Texas Department of Transportation representative, envision a time not all that far off when that will happen.
Hard to imagine.
But more and more it appears an official consensus is forming to depress I-35 below ground level as it passes by downtown and then put what would amount to a park on top of it. Or perhaps three small parks. Given enough money, this is technically possible. It now appears even probable.
Picture this at a point in space now occupied by 18-wheelers and frustrated drivers: a landscaped park, with yoga and dance classes, pingpong tables, a band shell and a dog park, perhaps even a Tavern on the Green-style restaurant. East-west streets like East Third or East Sixth cutting through the park at intervals. The muffled sound of 170,000 cars and trucks a day drifting up from below through periodic breaks in that chain of parks between East Cesar Chavez and East 12th streets.
Something much like this exists right now 200 miles to the north in downtown Dallas. Klyde Warren Park, completed in 2012 after a decade-long planning and construction process, sits atop the Woodall Rogers Freeway over a three-block stretch. John Zogg, managing director of leasing for Crescent Real Estate Equities in Dallas, part of Wednesday’s panel, was a part of the park team from the beginning.
What was supposed to be a $35 million project became a $110 million project, Zogg said, about half of it paid for with private funds. A nonprofit foundation runs the park, makes sure it is heavily scheduled with events and activities, and offers everything (other than the restaurant) for free. The place is heavily attended, Zogg said, even on weekdays.
“It’s really become a community rallying point,” he said. “This park has allowed everyone to slow down and enjoy Dallas.”
Depressing I-35 through downtown has become something of a quest for Sinclair Black, also on the panel. Black, co-owner of an architectural firm and a University of Texas professor, in the 1990s began pushing for sinking I-35 below ground level in downtown, but in the past few months he added a significant wrinkle. Black would like to cap I-35, creating a tunnel more than a mile long, eliminate the frontage roads and replace them with a boulevard atop the tunnel.
The newly created land alongside the boulevard, in Black’s formulation, would become available for development, creating tax revenue and seamlessly connecting downtown to central East Austin.
But it appears increasingly likely that Black will not get everything he wants.
The panel’s third member, Terry McCoy, deputy district engineer for TxDOT’s Austin district, told the group a depressed I-35 would still require at least two entrance or exit ramps in each direction from Holly Street to East 11th (there are four in each direction now, further slowing traffic). And taking those ramps from ground level to freeway level, or vice versa, would require three blocks of length and clear air space above them.
“The ramps have to have headroom,” he said.
So for those blocks, McCoy said, you couldn’t have cross streets or driveway access to businesses or residences alongside. A boulevard, in other words, is just not practical, in TxDOT’s view. Beyond that, a tunnel as long as Black has in mind would trigger expensive federal safety requirements. Better, McCoy said, to have a park atop I-35 from perhaps East Cesar Chavez to East Fourth, another from East Sixth to East Eighth and another between East 11th and East 12th.
All of this, however, represents an evolution of TxDOT thinking from the late 1990s, when the agency envisioned swooping flyover bridges leading from a depressed I-35 well into downtown. The whole initiative died after community opposition to that concept joined with concerns about expense.
Which is still a concern. This innovative section would be only part of a Georgetown-to-San Marcos improvement of I-35 that is in the planning stages, including an added lane on both sides — almost certainly with tolls — that McCoy called “central to everything we do.” The cost is undetermined at this point but will run into the billions of dollars.
I wrote a column a few years ago equating I-35 to the weather, things that everyone complains about but no one does anything about. This time, finally, the talk truly sounds as if it will lead to significant action to add capacity to the road, diminish I-35’s slashing effect on the heart of Austin, cut down on wrecks, and ease the east-west passage for bikes, pedestrians and transit vehicles.
And, just maybe, create parkland literally out of thin air.