I-35 expansion could destroy a 70-unit affordable housing complex. TxDOT didn't notice at first.
The Texas Department of Transportation overlooked a 70-unit affordable housing complex when tallying how many homes could be destroyed by a move to widen Interstate 35 through Central Austin.
Aria Grand — an apartment community in the Travis Heights neighborhood that opened in 2019 — was omitted from the initial count of residential displacements in TxDOT's early analysis of the expansion options.
If Aria Grand were condemned to enlarge the interstate, about twice as many households would be displaced as TxDOT initially estimated, close to 140 in all. More than 70 commercial properties could also be seized. This would be done through eminent domain, a process that allows the state to take private property for public use as long as the owner receives fair compensation.
TxDOT blames the oversight on its use of outdated aerial imagery.
"The base maps we had used may have been a year old or two years old, and we started this a couple years ago, so that compounds upon itself," TxDOT Austin District Engineer Tucker Ferguson said. "As we progress through the development of those kind of projects, we do get more specific. We update our maps. We do more field survey to find out what actually is on the ground. We certainly won't miss anybody as we develop the project and finalize those types of details."
Eminent domain attorneys told KUT that revisions to early TxDOT plans are common, but not usually to this degree.
"What's interesting to me is the magnitude in this case," said Luke Ellis, a partner at Marrs Ellis & Hodge who also teaches eminent domain law at UT Austin. "If they were at plus or minus 150 and they missed 70 units, that's a pretty big miss on a percentage basis. Have I seen them make these types of errors before? Yes, but not with that wide of a margin."
But now, TxDOT has revised one of the two competing expansion proposals — known as Build Alternative 3 — to spare not just the Aria Grand, but also multifamily housing on the other side of the freeway.
A two-story apartment complex called Carlton Gardens and a condo community at 1500 Summit Street were initially included in the public displacement tallies, TxDOT said, but would now survive if the modified Build Alternative 3 is chosen.
Build Alternative 2, the other option in the running, cuts through all of them including Aria Grand.
TxDOT refuses to say which of the two build options it prefers. Build Alternative 1 — a plan to tunnel the interstate through downtown — was already ruled out, in part because of its significantly higher costs.
So now TxDOT will first spend months conducting analyses of both remaining expansion plans while residents, business owners and workers up and down the project's path wonder about their future.
But destroying a 70-unit affordable housing complex in one of the most centrally located zip codes in the city could prove too large a pill for TxDOT to swallow — especially considering the optics of the state agency having missed Aria Grand in the first place.
Replacing 70 affordable housing units would be hard to do
The $17 million Aria Grand was made possible through a federal program that incentivizes private developers to build affordable housing. Developers get federal tax credits to help lower the cost of building an apartment complex. In exchange, they promise to offer a specific number of units at a reduced rent to households with lower incomes.
Austin taxpayers helped out. Aria Grand developers bought the land in 2017 with a $1.5 million low-interest loan from Austin's 2013 affordable housing bond. Back then, the tract at the southwest corner of Woodland Avenue and I-35 was an undeveloped lot of trees and brush backing to Harpers Branch Creek.
At Aria Grand, rents for 60 of the 70 units are calculated based on household income. A two-person household earning less than $23,750 could qualify for a one-bedroom apartment for as little as $400 per month.
That's extremely low rent for anywhere in Austin, but especially in that zip code. A one-bedroom apartment in 78704 costs $1,786 per month on average, according to an analysis of rental communities prepared for KUT by ApartmentData.com.
"If I tried to replicate this today, I don't know how I would do it," said Aria Grand developer Megan Lasch, president of O-SDA Industries. "If you look at what we paid for the dirt here, it was incredibly cheap compared to what it would cost today."
Bulldozing a relatively new affordable housing complex in the centrally located Travis Heights neighborhood would also deliver a striking blow to Austin's affordable housing goals, which the city has struggled to meet since adopting the strategy in 2017.
"It's proven really difficult in areas that have been historically low-density, single-family," said Elizabeth Mueller, a professor of community and regional planning at UT Austin. "People don't have that many choices as centrally located [as Aria Grand]."
TxDOT has focused on Build Alternative 3
When TxDOT unveiled plans last summer to widen I-35, the state agency was met with loud opposition from neighborhood groups, transportation advocates and elected officials.
Austin City Council honed in on the displacements, unaware at the time that the numbers were even higher than what TxDOT had reported. Travis County Commissioners called for the footprint to be shrunk and demanded "a significantly different alternative" for the highway project.
So when the state agency got a second chance to draft the I-35 expansion designs based on community feedback, engineers put almost all their focus on Build Alternative 3.
The attention-grabbing revisions emphasized by TxDOT at a media unveiling in January included shifting both frontage roads to the same side of the highway downtown to create a boulevard-style section, lowering longer stretches of the interstate below ground level and increasing the number of pedestrian crossings.
TxDOT produced renderings to show how the city's desire to cover lowered sections of I-35 with "caps" — long decks between bridges that could support public plazas, parks or even buildings — be integrated into Build Alternative 3, as long as the city could come up with the hundreds of millions of dollars to pay for them.
One of the most significant changes to Build Alternative 3 was the transformation of the intersection at Riverside Drive and I-35 into something called a single-point urban interchange (SPUI).
A SPUI (pronounced SPOO-ee) allows all left-hand turns to be controlled by a single traffic signal. The configuration means more vehicles can move through an intersection, but it also requires more space.
The SPUI's wider footprint allowed TxDOT to shift entrance and exit ramps further north, TxDOT's Ferguson said, making it possible to shrink the right-of-way near the Aria Grand and other residences south of Riverside to spare them from the highway's path.
So, given all time spent changing Build Alternative 3 to placate some criticism and the fact that it addresses TxDOT's oversight of Aria Grand, is Build Alternative 2 even seriously under consideration anymore?
"We have two very contrasting [options] going through the environmental process," Ferguson said. "We're neutral right now."
Months in limbo
Of course, making no changes to I-35 is still an option, too. TxDOT will compare that "No Build" option against the other two proposals for the next several months.
First, the department will analyze the projects' effects on everything from air and water quality to traffic noise and climate change. The reports, known as environmental impact statements, are carefully scrutinized by advocates who frequently contest the findings.
After that's done, TxDOT will select the proposal it favors and stamp it with the official designation of "Preferred Alternative."
That decision is expected at the end of this year or early 2023. A 60-day public comment period follows. And then the final decision is scheduled to be announced in the summer of 2023.
TxDOT anticipates construction will start in late 2025.
If the state agency opts for Build Alternative 2 after all that, the backlash could be severe.
"It would be terrible to have a highway project result in the demolition of what is really very, very new affordable housing," said Austin City Council Member Kathie Tovo, whose District 9 encompasses Aria Grand. "There have been lots of financial resources and planning and time and effort and energy that have gone into creating that community. It would really be a loss to see it go."