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'Austin's culture is being sold' | Possible I-35 expansion could lead to businesses, residents displaced

With the rapid growth of Central Texas and the possible expansion of I-35, business owners don't feel heard.

AUSTIN, Texas — In an effort to fix the congestion along Interstate 35, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) is proposing a project to expand the highway. But the expansion would come at the cost of displacing 107 businesses.

The 107 businesses that would be displaced include 69 commercial lots, 24 multi-family units, two single-family units and 12 vacant lots. From now until March 7, community members can voice their thoughts on the project in the virtual public hearing. 

So Han Fan is the one of the business owners who could get affected. Fan is the founder of West China Tea, and has poured more than tea over the years – he's poured a large amount of money, time and energy into maintaining the space. West China Tea has survived the COVID-19 shutdowns and the last two freezes that took over the State. 

The proposed expansion leaves Fan with the possibility of having to relocate his business.

"One more thing to worry about as a business owner, on top of losing power for four days, on top of the changing rules around COVID and on top of all of these different issues that we face now, I have to worry about, they're going to tear down this building," Fan said. 


On Thursday, KVUE talked to Brad Wheelis, a member of TxDOT, about the possible businesses and residents that would be displaced due to the expansion. 

"We're in contact with those people and working with them, as far as residents are concerned, relocation assistance as well as businesses can qualify for mitigation," Wheelis said. 

While there is a hearing taking place, Fan admits he still doesn't believe his concerns are being taken into consideration. 

"No human being has reached out to me. We've gotten form letters that are like 'this is happening' and this is the, 'if you want to say something about it, this is the website you go to.' This is the most I've had a conversation with a human being about this issue," Fan said. 

But Fan is not just anxious about relocating, he's also concerned about the shift taking place in the city. 

"Austin's culture is being sold. We're selling and destroying the parts of Austin that make it unique," Fan said. 

Another business that could potentially be displaced is Stars Cafe, which is located right off the highway. Manager Jetara Robertson is scared the highway expansion could lead to the city losing its distinctive style and flavor. 

"I hate to say it, but Keep Austin Weird. Stars is definitely weird. We've always been that place where we even hire people where they might not get these jobs at their fancier restaurant because they might not fit the mold," Robertson said. 

Robertson explained that closing down or relocating brings "scary possibilities" for this Austin staple. 

"You want Austin to change, you want Austin to expand, but you also want to be able to keep your heart," Robertson said. 

Residents that would like to submit their concerns about the project can visit the I-35 expansion project's website, email the project or submit a verbal comment at 512-651-2948.

TxDOT provided KVUE with the following statement: 

TxDOT and the I-35 Capital Express Central project team have worked to significantly narrow the footprint and continue to work at limiting impacts to corridor properties in the preferred Modified Build-Alternative 3. The preferred alternative would displace 107 occupants along the I-35 corridor, as compared to Build-Alternative 2, which proposed to displace 291 occupants. The impacts include 69 commercial lots, 24 multi-family units, 2 single-family units and 12 vacant lots. TxDOT is looking to assist business owners and families with these impacts by offering advanced relocation assistance for selected properties to reduce effects on underserved populations. TxDOT uses fair market appraisals to determine initial offers. We have received more than 1,000 comments so far, with more than half in support of the project. 

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