Louis Laves-Webb did his homework before buying the duplex along Great Northern Boulevard early this year.
He saw the Union Pacific tracks just 110 feet west of his front door, which has about two dozen freight trains passing by daily. Then of course, another 100 feet or so up the slope, he could hear the low roar of MoPac Boulevard’s northbound lanes. So he put in new windows to suppress the noise.
What Laves-Webb didn’t know then is that the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority plans to build a 20-foot-high sound barrier along Great Northern. Less than 25 yards from his house.
Echoing talking points from a core group of Allandale residents looking to tear down that wall before it arises, Laves-Webb said the barrier would cause earlier sunsets, block breezes, attract graffiti artists and erase the view of greenery in the railroad right of way. And he said the wall likely will be an eyesore.
“Aesthetically, 20 feet is extremely high,” Laves-Webb, a clinical social worker, said. “I’ll just be coming out and staring at a wall.”
The late-breaking uprising against the wall has been been something of a trial for mobility authority officials, who thought they were going the extra mile when they agreed to spend $15 million or more for seven miles of sound walls as part of a $200 million expansion of MoPac (Loop 1). The two-year project to add a toll lane to each side of MoPac between Lady Bird Lake and Parmer Lane will have its ceremonial groundbreaking later this month.
Only two other sound walls of the 21 the authority is building will be 20 feet high, and those will stand near the freeway, removed from homes. Most of the barriers will be eight to 12 feet high, and residents have generally welcomed them. In fact, some MoPac neighbors have spent years pushing highway officials to build them.
“I have worked 23 years on this,” said Frances Allen, a retired school teacher whose home on Westfield Drive, a few blocks north of West 45th Street, backs up to MoPac. “I am honestly just delighted that it will happen before I die.”
The reviews are more mixed in Allandale.
The mobility authority proposed two walls along MoPac’s east side there. One of them, dubbed Barrier No. 2, was to run along Great Northern from south of Anderson Lane to near Far West Boulevard. Barrier No. 3, the one by Laves-Webb’s home, is set to stretch for a mile from south of Far West to near RM 2222.
The southern half of Barrier No. 3 will be shorter, about 12 feet high, and will pass behind homes on an abandoned part of Great Northern. Virtually no one seems to object to that section. But because the section of Allandale north of Bullard Drive lies well below the lanes of MoPac, a higher wall was necessary to block the sound, mobility authority spokesman Steve Pustelnyk said.
He said the agency plans a painted concrete wall, making it easier to paint over graffiti. And he said the thin strip between the wall and Great Northern — probably about five to six feet — will be landscaped.
Like it did with each of the proposed walls, the agency held public meetings on Barrier No. 3 and then conducted a vote of people whose homes were adjacent to MoPac. People living farther away, even as close as a block into the neighborhood, were not asked to take part in the vote. The ballots did not mention the height of the walls.
Barrier No. 2 was rejected 10-6 in the 2011 voting. Barrier No. 3, despite opposition at the time from some of the same people still working against it, sailed to approval on a 26-3 vote. As far as the mobility authority was concerned, that was that. The agency, saying it followed voting and environmental procedures set out by the state, intends to put up the wall as designed. Construction is set to begin next summer.
“We believe we are obligated by the environmental document to build the wall as described in that document,” said Pustelnyk, adding that the approximate cost of the wall is $1.7 million. “The only reason to change the wall would be if it cannot be constructed as designed.”
But some Allandale residents say Barrier No. 3 should have been split into two segments for voting — the shorter section behind homes, south of Gullett Elementary, and the taller piece along Great Northern — and that since it wasn’t, they want another vote. They claim that people voted the first time without knowing that a 20-foot wall was in the offing. Donna Beth McCormick, a former president of the Allandale Neighborhood Association, said she is skeptical that neighbors weren’t aware of the wall heights.
“That is a crock,” McCormick said. “It was in the Allandale newsletter, which goes to every household, many times, and there were meetings. It’s been on the listserv. It’s a done deal.”
Even had Barrier No. 3 been broken into, for instance, a 3A and 3B (as occurred with a wall opposite the Clarksville neighborhood, leading to the rejection of a short wall there), both would have been approved based on the initial vote. South of Bullard, the wall prevailed 20-1. North, in the disputed section, the vote was 5-2.
That vote would be closer today. Don Goertz, executive director of the Austin Montessori School at 6819 Great Northern, said he voted yes in 2011 because he was envisioning a wall perhaps six feet high.
“If we had known at the time what it was they were proposing, we would have opposed it,” Goertz said. He has about 80 students. “As far as the school is concerned, the noise is totally inconsequential. I don’t see that that at all justifies the ugliness and expense.”
Laves-Webb, meanwhile, said that if the mobility authority doesn’t change its mind, he’ll adjust. He suggested that perhaps he and his son could use the wall to play racquetball.
“I’ll make lemons into lemonade somehow,” he said. “But my definite preference would be that it not be.”