Last week, we asked our splendid readers to dream up a few design concepts for what might go on top of the potential caps covering the lowered and expanded Interstate 35 through downtown Austin. Putting something interesting over the newly-widened highway might be the one upside to a project we find hugely ill-advised, despite the insistence by the Texas Department of Transportation that failing to add a bunch of lanes to the highway will result in future commute times of nearly four hours by 2045.
Since we’re looking at an alleged limit of two-story buildings at the edges of the caps at most, there’s a built-in constraint on how much the city could hope to recoup from development on the roughly 15 acres of reclaimed space, despite its estimated cost in the ballpark of $800 million. That’s a lot of cash to throw down assuming we just put parks atop the caps, more than seven times what Dallas paid for its precedent-setting Klyde Warren Park over the Woodall Rogers Freeway — so what did our readers suggest? Here’s some of our favorite ideas from the hundreds we received:
“Nothing wrong with more park space, as long as it’s well-maintained. Would be nice to have some restaurants. A Ferris wheel on one of the caps would be cool and would give awesome views of downtown. I like the idea of having a carousel/merry-go-round as well, to add to a festive vibe and draw families and others. Maybe these would not be too heavy for the structure to support.”
“Parks make sense, are relatively cheap, and will probably be built on some of the smaller caps. But for the larger caps, maybe an “outdoor mall” of sorts. Single or 2-story strip retail on the outer edges of the large cap between 5th and Cesar Chavez. Boutique spaces with room for smaller restaurants and shopping. It would be walkable in between retail strips and mesh into adjacent cap parks.”
“If you can’t build housing, then some sort of dense lowrise marketplace would be great – esp. if it was modeled after the Singapore night markets. Fits with Austin rep as a fun food centric city.”
“Hoping park space would take priority with any buildings housing museums, cultural orgs, and non-profits. A market space and food hall would be great too. Good, affordable food. Please god no jewel-boxes planned for upscale restaurants bound to sit vacant for years.”
“BETWEEN 8th and 4th: Create a vendor-centric day market that dubs as a night market – permanent one story structures for local vendors to set up on along the cap, perhaps with some permanent dining spaces. (Example concepts = The Original Farmers Market in Los Angeles on Fairfax & 3rd… or La Rambla in Barcelona. Add park space Between 4th & Cesar Chavez, and 11th & 12th”
“Move the convention center from its current location and put it on top of IH-35 and have parks on either side of it North and South. Sell the land under the current convention center which should raise billions of dollars for the city which would allow them to pay for the new larger convention center over IH-35 and pay for the parks. Then the convention center could fund the maintenance of the parks over IH-35 with fees raised for conventions held as well as the Hotel Occupancy Taxes.”
“They should re-engineer the caps so they can support more development, cuz parks in between 3 lane 45 mph frontage roads gets us nowhere.”
“I recommend a series of entertainment venues. Basically recreate what Rainey Street evolved to when it transitioned from residential to commercial. A 2-story limitation is quite adequate and with good planning for the arrival and departure of ride shares, pedicabs and taxis, no need for parking. Deliveries to the venues would be necessary and needs to be considered in the design, but green spaces between venues, open spaces for outdoor music and dining, small retail (Royal Blue-like shopping), with access to this space from the high rise residential buildings already being erected along the IH-35 corridor.”
“Caps such as these are useless – nobody wants to hang out on a giant lawn over a highway. We shouldn’t expand I-35 and instead we should consider alternatives like Rethink35 or a proper full on burial that we can build on. It’s astonishing that we’re supposed to spend 800 million on something we can’t build on properly on the most valuable land in the state.”
“Large empty warehouses filled with stalls that can rented to accommodate a permanent farmers market (think Seattle Pikes Place market), a flower market and artists (think of the Drag of yesteryear or Armadillo Christmas Bazaar, but hopefully a notch higher in quality and with built in stages for musicians). Antiques could work as well a la the old Whit Hanks building. By making some of the stalls small and interchangeable, you could offer venues for local artists and merchants in a sustainable way. Connect the buildings via shade protected pathways through open areas that make up the bulk of the capped area. The conundrum is parking, but I will leave that to you urban planning geniuses to figure out.”
“A large section should be dedicated to an urban recreational sports complex. Soccer fields, basketball courts, Pickleball/tennis. While there are a lot of parks in and near downtown, there is very limited public sports infrastructure. A market square- a dedicated urban space for farmers/artisan markets and similar events. Assuming that the engineering would support a lighter weight covered pavilion in lieu of buildings, this could be a year-round outdoor-ish market.”
“A new engineering study – much larger air-rights buildings are built in many places around the world and in the US over highways and railway tunnels with no issue.”
“Museums/ Cultural spaces! Two stories can be plenty for more cultural institutions to sit on the bridge between East and Central Austin, plus create a stronger reason for activity when the weather isn’t park friendly. Otherwise, housing… but that feels like a non starter.”
“One thing that no one seems to be discussing is that if the caps can only support a single story building, they likely will NOT be able to support the kind of soil volume across the entire cap that would allow for shade trees to be planted in the number that would be needed to make this even remotely comfortable in the summer. So those huge expanses of green nothing might be closer to what we get than we’d hoped. Given the proximity to Waterloo and the structural constraints, I think sports fields actually make the most sense. Put up soccer fields, basketball courts, a baseball field, sand volleyball, tennis courts, and yes, pickleball. We don’t really have centralized sporting facilities in the city center – this is the perfect spot.”
“Build 2-story buildings along the cross street crossings (to make the urban form more continuous when looking down the streets) and fill the rest of the caps with highly amenities parks. To differentiate from Waterloo Greenway, we could have things like basketball courts, putt putt, etc.”
“Move the convention center over the caps (at least on part) and then use the convention center land to be redeveloped with residential, office, retail, and reconnecting the grid and re-establishing a walkable urban environment in the south east downtown quadrant.”
“Beer gardens, playgrounds, mini-plazas with small performance stages intended for free events. A NIGHT MARKET. A day market too. Basically 24/7 Pecan St Fest”
“While it’s a shame that the highway has to be expanded, we still have some useful options. Even just two stories on the side of the park nearest the massive frontage roads can help alleviate noise in these parks. Add in some ground level retail and maybe one level apartments on top. The Waterloo Greenway is much more interesting as a walking park so the caps should have other amenities that you wouldn’t find there: soccer, volleyball, pickleball, bocce ball courts all come to mind. These are desperately needed near downtown and provide a different level of service than Waterloo. Add in a food truck park or some commercial activity and you can recreate a bit of Mary Elizabeth Branch Park in Mueller.”
Along with pickleball, ferris wheels, and a relocated convention center, the most common suggestion for the caps we received was to build some kind of market space — and the idea actually has a surprising amount of historical precedence here. The City Market House, which once stood at the current site of the Austin Police Department headquarters on East Seventh Street, was a Depression-era project funded by Public Works Administration funds offering a permanent space for local farmers to sell their products directly to the public.
Though the growing popularity of supermarkets eventually led to the closure of the facility in 1952, demolition didn’t arrive until the construction of I-35 in the early 1960s — meaning a new permanent market structure, similar to the popular facility in Dallas, would kinda bring things full circle here.
Plus, as mentioned by some readers, the kind of open-air pavilion typically built to shade stalls in a farmer’s market could likely be designed to easily meet the weight limits of the freeway cap. It’s the best idea we’ve heard so far, but that doesn’t make the limitations and cost of this project worth it in the end — and there’s still time to voice your opinion to TxDOT and advocate for a better plan.