AIA – Letter To TxDOT 09/21

September 18, 2021

Mr. Tucker Ferguson
TxDOT Austin District
District Engineer

Ms. Susan Fraser
TxDOT Austin District
Mobility 35 Program Manager

Dear Mr. Ferguson and Ms. Fraser,

The American Institute of Architects, Austin Chapter (AIA Austin), has 1,230 architects and designer members along with 220 allied members in related fields. While our membership holds a variety of opinions on various topics, one thing we all have in common is an appreciation for the design process that carefully analyzes priorities and constraints and applies creative problem solving to achieve the most appropriate solution for any given prompt. We strive for beautiful, functional, high-performing, sustainable solutions that balance alternatives relative to the upfront and life-cycle costs.

Because we apply these skills to complex projects daily, we know that challenges can be turned into opportunities and a wonderful result can be achieved with the help of our partners in the engineering, landscape architecture, and construction industries, to name a few.

We optimistically request that TxDOT take another stab at producing an alternative that takes a systems thinking, design-driven approach to the portion of I-35 that cuts through Austin’s Urban Core (Cap Ex Central). This is a project of a lifetime that Austinites, visitors, and those traveling through will experience day in and day out for 50 plus years into the future. It should exemplify the innovation of our day.

It should also be mindful of the place in which it is being constructed—the real people who will have their lives and businesses permanently destroyed and removed from Austin’s tax rolls. This action should be absolutely avoided in every possible instance and the approach should be taken that these properties are sacred. What would the design be if those weren’t available for the taking?

As people who evaluate options large and small, we expect to have the opportunity to evaluate meaningfully different alternatives. This opportunity is not being afforded with the two alternatives presented and therefore the call for public feedback sounds hollow and disingenuous. Could one of the three community alternatives not also be studied?

Frontage roads should be designed as slow, narrow, urban, multi-modal, transit-supportive city streets, instead of high-speed frontage roads. Those city streets would serve to rejoin our grid and stitch our city back together.

Every possible east/west street should be reconnected. Fewer ramps would go a long way toward achieving this. Interchanges have no place in this dense urban area and destroy opportunities for easy, intuitive, accessible pedestrian crossings.

As designers we believe that the built environment is critical to the character of Austin and our quality of life. We encourage TxDOT to work with city of Austin engineers, who are adept at creating city streets in an urban environment. We hope to see a design for the surface level of this highway that is a quality urban environment with safe, multi-modal streets, trees, and places designed for people. I-35 through the heart of Austin should do a significantly better job connecting walkable, vibrant neighborhoods, starting with significantly narrowing the footprint of the highway and providing additional east/west points of connection.

Furthermore, our professional charge is a duty to protect the Health, Safety, and Welfare of the Public and therefore at this time AIA Austin cannot support the current options presented by TxDOT on 8/10/21. The current highway design must be revisited.

Please consider increasing safety with:

  • lower design speeds for main lanes and frontage roads
  • using more progressive engineering standards
  • ramping that is appropriate to an urban context
  • better serving transit
  • creating truly safe designs for all road uses
  • providing access over mobility and
  • safety over speed

Please make every effort to incorporate design elements lending themselves toward lessening I-35’s contribution to air pollution in Austin’s environment and our global climate. Bring forth designs that reduce the high levels of noise and urban heat island created by I-35 that negatively impact the quality of life near the Interstate. Additionally, make changes to ensure SH-130 is utilized as originally described; a by-pass of downtown Austin for through traffic, including tractor-trailers.

Please contribute to the well-being of Austinites by ensuring that the solution for Cap Ex Central prevents further displacement of Austinites. What was done in the 1950’s is not socially acceptable in this day and time. Citizens voices must be heard. We are in the middle of a housing and transportation crisis and we need better design solutions that address these crises by creating an environment that’s conducive to housing, jobs, community services, and transit options.

Respectfully,

Stephi Motal, AIA
President, AIA Austin