AUSTIN (KXAN) — Black and brown Austinites are waiting to see whether they’re going to get pushed out of their neighborhoods.
With just a few weeks left to weigh in on the Texas Department of Transportation’s I-35 expansion project, many are looking ahead to see where they’ll go.
In the heart of downtown Austin sits La Escuelita de Alma, a daycare. You can hear kids laughing and playing — ignorant of the fast-moving world around them.
La Escuelita is just one of the properties that would be forced to move. It’s a place families have been sending their kids for generations.
“We serve a little bit under 200 families, working families,” Jaime Cano, the daycare’s assistant director, said. “They really rely on our center, because it’s so centrally located because we do offer a semi-affordable rate… It not only impacts the children who were relying on us to learn but also our staff members who are mostly Latino.”
Though the move wouldn’t be immediate, there are a number of factors tied to what’s being called one of the biggest displacement projects in Central Texas in recent times. That’s according to eminent domain lawyer Luke Ellis with Marrs Ellis & Hodge LLP.
More than 100 businesses and residences are expected to be displaced by the eight-mile expansion. This expansion would remove the current I-35 decks, lower the roadway and add two high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes in each direction. Within the new design, the east-west cross-street bridges would be reconstructed, and new bike paths would be added.
Cano said he’s worried about what TxDOT’s plan means for the daycare and its families.
“It has proven to be extremely difficult to find all of the things that we need to continue to operate a center of this size,” Cano said.
Even TxDOT admits in its I-35 Environmental Impact draft this will be a problem displaced businesses and neighbors run into:
“Due to the issues affecting Austin’s housing and real estate prices, it may be difficult for those who are displaced to relocate within the same area. This could force businesses and residents out of the area and leave a gap in services, especially for those unique businesses or those that serve a particular or underserved population. TxDOT is committed to assisting critical facilities find alternate locations near their current locations, when possible. TxDOT is currently looking at providing advanced relocation assistance for selected properties to minimize impacts to underserved communities.”
Real estate agent Kevin Dibia with Premier Team Real Estate said this will mean those in this area will essentially be pushed out of their neighborhoods.
“You’ll have to move kind of outskirts of Austin, you know, Pflugerville… Cedar Park,” Divia said.
TxDOT assistance with the relocation process will include payouts. It legally has to do that, according to Ellis.
The appraised value of the commercial properties ranges from $319,000 to $85,000,000, according to 2021 Travis County appraisal rolls.
For homes, that range is between $368,000 to $873,000, per Travis County.
“TxDOT will tell you that their initial offer is fair,” Ellis said. “‘I’m here to tell you that oftentimes it is not.”
Ellis said one of the biggest challenges ahead will be making sure property owners are being fairly compensated. He said he’s already representing some people who could be displaced and is working to make sure people and businesses get paid what they deserve.
“So, in this case, is there even a fightback process?” Reporter Jala Washington asked.
“It’s extremely difficult to challenge TxDOT, and its ability to expand a road and take your property,” Ellis responded. “We try to focus our clients on their constitutional right to just compensation, their way to fight back, their way to be sure that they’re treated fairly.”
But what’s fair goes beyond money.
“This is going to be the second time that we’re having to move,” Cano said. “In the early 2000s, [we had to leave] the original location… on the corner of Congress and Third… because they were building some condos or some apartments.”
Cano said they’re doing their research to look for another property that’s affordable and accessible to their families.
The negation process could take a while, according to Ellis.
“Sometimes the only way to get to a resolution point is for a case to go all the way through both the administrative phase, the trial phase and potentially even on appeal,” Ellis said. “So, some of these property owners may be looking at a legal fight that could go on for several years.
See TxDOT’s plan and how it could impact you online. Neighbors have until March 7 to provide feedback to TxDOT.