A portfolio of two adjacent commercial properties recently offered for sale against the I-35 frontage road near the Swede Hill area of East Austin reminds us once again of the ample opportunities for downtown-adjacent infill development near the highway in this area — and as the so-called Innovation District begins taking shape directly across the interstate around the former Brackenridge hospital complex and its adjacent social anchor of Waterloo Park, it’s easy to dream of how a modified I-35 might finally reconnect the developments on either side.
Here’s the deal: commercial real estate giants JLL are marketing a 0.52-acre assembly of adjacent lots at 1213 North I-35 and 811 East 13th Street, sites respectively occupied at the moment by a small two-story law office and a 972-square-foot single-family home converted for retail use. It’s a sort of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it corner lot, bound by the I-35 frontage road and East 13th Street’s inexplicable right-turn split-lane into the neighborhood. Both properties feature mixed-use zoning, and it’s far easier to get reasonable density out of a highway-adjacent tract around these parts — there’s almost always some kind of challenge, but something built here is more likely to go tall than a site deeper inside the neighborhood. (And it should!)
But despite the challenges of I-35, looking at surrounding growth patterns it’s clear this site’s position for new infill development is promising — it’s overlooking downtown, adjacent not only to the recent Avenir apartment project a couple of blocks south, but more broadly the redeveloping Brackenridge site directly across the highway, the anchor of the Innovation District which also includes the Alexan Waterloo tower, the Symphony Square project, and the two-tower HealthSouth redevelopment.
We could all see the direction this area was headed five years ago, and with development possibilities now spreading to the other side of the highway, it’s hard not to imagine how these projects could eventually better connect to downtown over the interstate. Though the state’s perspective on the subject hasn’t exactly sparked joy thus far, the potential of a lowered I-35 that could be further modified by a “cap and stitch” program building decks over portions of the highway in the manner of Klyde Warren Park is obvious. It’s not quite the full burial I-35 richly deserves, but even the more limited current study by the Urban Land Institute describes the stretch of highway between East 11th and East 12th Streets — that’s only one block south of the possible infill site we’re looking at here:
The panel recommends placing a cap and stitches between East 12th Street and East 11th Street. This section of I-35 is near the University of Texas at Austin’s planned Moody Center (basketball arena), and a cap and stitches will help facilitate east–west access to the University of Texas at Austin campus. This area can also serve as an entrance to the emerging Innovation District and the Dell Medical School, and can connect East Austin to Waterloo Park and Austin’s trail system.
It seems obvious that the massive appeal of the major projects planned for the Innovation District will present a powerful case for a capped I-35 once they’re complete, as the deck would provide easy multimodal access to developments on both sides — and though this isn’t the only location that would greatly benefit from such a transformation, depending on how this Swede Hill tract grows it might be one of the best stretches of highway to demonstrate that potential. Fingers crossed, right?