Community opposition to the Texas Department of Transportation's plan to drastically expand Interstate-35 continued this week, with local elected and appointed officials speaking out against the project in droves.
The Capital Express Central project, which would widen I-35 in an eight-mile stretch of central Austin from the Manor Expressway to Ben White Boulevard, is designed to improve the highly-trafficked highway as the population of Central Texas continues to grow.
The current proposed plan, which is undergoing an environmental review, would add two lanes in each direction on I-35, significantly widening the highway, as well as adding additional flyovers and improving access for cyclists and pedestrians. TxDOT says that the changes will "creat[e] a more dependable and consistent route for the traveling public."
Some Austinites—particularly those who live close to the highway—are not pleased. Individuals can give their feedback on the project online through Sept. 24.
A bevy of community leaders, including city council members, rallied last week against the proposal. The city's Urban Transportation Commission gave it an official seal of disapproval Tuesday night, voting in favor of a resolution asking TxDOT to abandon the expansion project or asking the city to do its best to stop its implementation.
That frustration with the plan, which opponents argue will increase noise and air pollution while doing nothing to decrease traffic on the already heavily congested stretch of highway, has been echoed at community meetings.
Brandy Savarese of the Cherrywood Neighborhood Association helped host a meeting about the I-35 project at Cherrywood Coffeehouse. (Abe Asher/Austonia)
At Cherrywood Coffeehouse in East Austin on Wednesday night at an event sponsored by the Cherrywood Neighborhood Association steering committee, State Senator Sarah Eckhardt (D-Austin) said that the highway project needs cooperation between city, state and federal officials on how to renovate in a climate-friendly way that combats economic displacement.
State Rep. Sheryl Cole (D-Austin) agreed—arguing that Austin is not getting the input it should have in the process.
"What can we say? The state has done it to us again," she said. "TxDOT has told us what they won't do, but we can't listen to that and stop from making our voices heard. And I really feel like our voices have not been heard and TxDOT has not taken enough of an opportunity to come out."
TxDOT representatives were present at Cherrywood Coffeehouse, answering questions about possible plans. Some of those present supported TxDOT alternatives to the proposed build, while others voiced support for different measures like obtaining new funding for cap-and-stitch measures and other proposals like one from transportation organization Reconnect Austin.
TxDOT provided alternatives to its I-35 plan to those at Cherrywood Coffeehouse. (Abe Asher/Austonia)
The interstate makes up the Cherrywood neighborhood's western edge, and many of the older homes in the neighborhood predate its initial construction.
"If you look anywhere around the United States and the world, you can see a lot of alternatives (to highway expansion)," Cherrywood resident Lamar Vieau said. "It's not like we need to do this again to see that it doesn't work."
The city of Austin does not have any direct ability to stop the project, and may, depending on how TxDOT precedes, be forced to follow an example set earlier this year when Harris County sued in district court to halt the Department of Transportation beginning planned expansion of I-45 and redoing the project's environmental review. The project has since been paused by the Federal Highway Administration, citing civil rights concerns associated with the project.
A note on the expansion plan stated the project would hurt minority owned businesses. (Abe Asher/Austonia)
Historical, climate concerns
The current plan appears to be at odds with Austin's stated transportation and livability goals, along with having cultural issues, on a number of levels.
I-35, which was called East Avenue before it was incorporated into the interstate system, seperated the city between the white westside and Black and Hispanic eastside in the first half of the 20th century and has long been seen as a race and class dividing line. Two years ago, State Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) told KVUE that the highway is a "scar on the city."
That aspect was not lost on Vieau. "I think it would be great if we could bury it and stitch it over, or at least look at some other ways of moving some of that traffic," he said.
The proposed expansion would also necessitate that the state claim some 150 properties as eminent domain alongside the current I-35, including a number of houses as well as longstanding businesses like the venerable Stars Cafe and the office of The Austin Chronicle.
With the city's stated goal to reduce single-occupancy vehicle mode share from its current level of 74% to 50% within the next two decades, a major highway expansion designed for cars is not expected to help accomplish that.
"We can't just… do what has always been done," Annette Stachowitz, a 61-year resident of Austin originally from Germany, said. "Lots of traffic, add some more lanes. There will be lots of traffic, add some more lanes. And there will be lots of traffic again, and, you know—somebody has to say, hey, let's find a different way."
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Actor, director and screenwriter Justin Theroux isn't the only famous member of his family. His canine companion Kuma made waves online this past weekend supporting Austin Pets Alive!—and Jennifer Aniston is a fan.
Theroux launched Kuma's own Instagram account on Saturday with a link to Austin Pets Alive!'s website in her bio. And the grey pitbull mix is already garnering the kind of attention worthy of her movie star dad: As of Monday night, she has over 55,000 followers.
Chief among them is Jennifer Aniston, who posted a photo of Theroux and his newly online dog on her Instagram story yesterday with fond words for the Austin shelter.
"Love what these two are doing to help people who help pups who help people," the 'Friends' star, and Theroux's ex-wife, wrote. "They helped save 60 pups at Austin Pets Alive! yesterday."
Theroux began volunteering at the shelter while filming 'The Leftovers' in Austin when he fell in love with the shelter's pitbulls, according to Dr. Ellen Jefferson, Austin Pets Alive! president and CEO.
"We are thrilled that he and Kuma are spreading the word about the work APA! is doing and the need to keep Austin no-kill," she said, referring to the shelter's commitment to save animals most at risk for euthenasia.
Theroux adopted his mut in 2018 after Kuma was rescued—dirty and injured—from the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey by A Chance to Bloom Dog Rescue, based in Conroe, Texas.
While Kuma is not from APA!, Theroux connected with the Conroe-based non-profit while visiting the Austin shelter, and he has remained "an enthusiastic supporter" ever since, Jefferson said.
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Six days a week, thousands of onlookers tune in to live streams to watch the pros rake it all in at high-stakes poker tournaments. The big-name poker players aren't in Las Vegas or even Oklahoma's finest casinos—instead, they're where Texas Hold 'Em gets its name.
Gambling may be illegal in Texas, but over a hundred poker houses are using a loophole to open up shop across the state, especially in Austin and Dallas.
The classic poker game is finally getting played for real cash around the Lone Star State thanks to an exception in Texas' gambling ban that allows poker games to be played in private residences. Instead of taking a cut from the pot like traditional gambling ventures, private poker houses don't make money from the results of a game; instead, they get their revenue from membership and hourly fees.
It's a business strategy that's gone (mostly) unchallenged by Texas politicians, especially as the industry begins to heat up.
Austin may now have around 20 poker houses around town, but it wasn't long ago that one stood alone like a small town saloon. The city's premiere poker house, Texas Card House, was founded in 2015 and has since grown to include a YouTube channel with over 30,000 subscribers, a wide range of gameplay and regular visits from big-name poker gurus like Brad Owen and Doug Pope.
David Lagana, a content creator who has worked in college sports and Hollywood, was brought into the scene in May as the house's live streams began to blow up. He said the live streaming battleground is only beginning.
"The space is ever-growing," Lagana said. "It's been interesting to try and find a lane that everybody can succeed. It's all about finding something that people want to watch on a nightly basis."
Can Player BLUFF Andrew Neeme and Brad Owen on LIVE Stream?
Watch now - https://t.co/4Wt4s5Z0V7@TheBradOwen @andrewneeme pic.twitter.com/Yg4R0c0sj2
— Texas Card House (@texascardhouse) August 25, 2021
Carolyn Hapgood, who has worked for Texas Card House for three years, has made a name for herself as a live stream producer, dealer and player herself with the company. She's seen Texas Card House grow from a two-room card house to the most well-known poker venue in Austin with another branch in Dallas.
"It was a teeny tiny little house with five tables, and that was the first legal card house in the state," Hapgood said. "And since then it's blown up."
Texas Card House dealer Carolyn Hapgood has been working with Austin's premier poker house since 2018. (Texas Poker House Austin/Facebook)
From $100 pots to buy-ins of $15,000 or more, Texas Card House has it all, especially as in-state players learn more about the game. Hapgood said there isn't really a typical poker player at the house—instead, the poker table forms an "interesting little ecosystem" that includes college students, a 93-year old Vietnam War veteran, online gamblers, old-school players and everyone in between. The diversity at the table has been enhanced even further by COVID as people clamor to return to in-person events.
But Texas Card House no longer holds a "royal flush" in Austin's poker culture. The Lodge, based in Round Rock, is now expanding to over 60 tables, the largest in Texas, while Palms Social Club, owned by Texas Card Houses' original owner Sam Von Kennel, brought service staff and a refined atmosphere to the Austin scene.
Hapgood said the base of poker players is very large and continues to grow, forming a community as players form friendships on and off the table.
"My favorite part of the poker community is how much fun we have," Hapgood said. "You sit at a table with eight of your friends, everyone's kind of just having a good time. There's a lot of players who will, you know, call or text each other after they're done playing, and they end up inviting each other barbecues, and going out to dinner with their families and stuff like that... those are my favorite people to hang out with."
Getting involved in the poker scene is as easy as tuning into a live stream, and Lagana hopes to see more outsiders like himself get inspired by poker in the future.
"It's kind of like life," Lagana said. "Life isn't just one hand to play... you're only in control of sort of what's in your hand (and) you can't play the card that you weren't dealt with. So it's really been a fascinating life lesson for me."
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From four-time Grammy-nominee turned big-screen actor, Black Pumas frontman Eric Burton will debut in the sci-fi short film "Devexity," which is written, directed by and stars Austinites.
The film, brought to life by Austin-based filmmaker Luke Lidell, will premiere on Oct. 7 at the Native Hostel while Burton is in town for Austin City Limits Fest. Then, "Devexity" will head off to film festival screenings, according to a report by The Austin Chronicle.
Following Burton as the film's protagonist, named Jean, "Devexity" takes place across several different settings and surfaces an existential response from the watcher. Burton stars alongside fellow Austinites Ali Pentecost, Dominique Pitts and New Yorker Madison Murrah in the partially black-and-white film.
The film was shot over the course of four days in October 2020, which Lidell said was a challenge of "focus" and "trust" to create. With a variety of scenes and intertwining narratives, the film dives into the topic of virtual reality.
A musician in addition to a filmmaker, Lidell previously directed the film "Telekinetic" in 2018. The script for "Devexity" was written by Lidell with Burton in mind for the lead after meeting him during a music video project in 2017—Lidell said Burton helped him shape the characters along the way.
Now that the door has been opened for work between Burton and Lidell, you're likely to see the pair collaborate again—a Black Pumas documentary is being rumored.
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