Burying I-35? UT Architect’s Plan Gains Traction


In 1962, Sinclair Black had just finished his bachelor’s of architecture at UT and started his first job at an architecture firm near Interstate 35. When a Texas Department of Transportation representative visited the company with a proposal to expand the highway vertically with flyovers, 22-year-old Black didn’t like what he heard. “That’s a really bad idea,” Black remembers thinking. He started wondering: what if the highway went underground instead?

More than fifty years later, Black—now a longtime UT School of Architecture professor and principal of Black + Vernooy—may finally have a shot at getting his wish. His “Reconnect Austin” plan to sink I-35 underground is now getting serious consideration by the Austin City Council, which will vote today on a referendum to study the plan’s financial viability.

In a city whose notoriously gridlocked traffic was recently ranked the fourth-worst in the nation, Austinites have been eager to consider Black’s plan. He spoke with the Alcalde about why he thinks tunneling I-35 underground and redeveloping the surface with real estate, parks, and city streets could completely change the city.

Why sink I-35?

There are so many reasons. One reason is cultural. When I-35 was built in the 1950s, it divided the city and created terrible economic and racial barriers that are still very much with us today. Now it needs to be rebuilt anyway—so this is our chance to fix it. This would go a long way toward making downtown more walkable, and we also believe that it’s a huge opportunity financially. Our numbers are based on creating 4,000 units of housing with 7,000 people living in the urban boulevard where the highway used to be. There would also be 30 acres of office and retail space—very valuable downtown real estate. We want to get rid of an eyesore and create income. It’s going to be a printing press for money.

mapYour plan would add one new lane in each direction on I-35. Is that really enough to alleviate Austin’s traffic congestion problem?

It’s really not about the number of lanes or the number of cars. The difference is in the behavior of the traffic. Our plan would reconnect Austin’s street grid, and street-level traffic behaves differently than highway traffic. Don’t like a street? You can turn onto another one. You have options. You’re not stuck in one place like you are on the highway.

But our objective is not to cut 30 seconds off your trip from the suburbs. We would rather have you spend 30 minutes drinking a coffee at a sidewalk cafe with friends walking by and your kids playing in the park. This is about more than traffic and more than money—although it’s going to be great for those things, too. It’s an urban design vision.

You’ve been talking about this plan since 1996, but now people are listening. What’s changed?

It’s not that people’s attitudes have changed, it’s that TxDOT has changed. They’re $13 billion in debt. Because of that, they’re in a learning mode. We’re working together with them in a way that wasn’t possible before. Imagine a football field. It used to be that me, council members, organizational leaders at every level, we were all standing on one goal line and TxDOT was standing on the other goal line, with absolutely nothing in common. Now they’ve moved 90 yards closer to us. We’re not all the way there, but they’re listening and trying to be responsive to what the community wants.

Can you point to other cities where a redesign like this has been successful?

There are lots of precedents—this isn’t a radical new idea or anything. Dallas did this and created the Klyde Warren Park. You can be relaxing in that park and not realize there are 2,000 cars driving underneath you. There’s Embarcadero in San Francisco, Harbor Drive Freeway Park in Portland, the Big Dig in Boston. All of these projects reduced traffic and improved quality of life in those cities. Ours is different, though, in that I hope it could be the first project to pay for itself. The land around I-35 is golden. We think it could create $900 million in new tax revenue and $3.2 billion in new tax base.

Describe the response Reconnect Austin has gotten so far.

We’ve taken this plan to more than 1,000 people, and I haven’t gotten one negative response so far. Not one. The public is absolutely 100 percent behind this idea. Everyone hates I-35, everyone can grasp this idea because we’ve all been stuck in traffic there. So while I know there will be obstacles, I’m very optimistic about our chances of getting this done.

Renderings by Reconnect Austin, courtesy Heyden Walker.


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