TxDOT bought the house next door and left it vacant for 6 months, annoying neighbors

The state says the 1946 building needed asbestos remediation before it could be demolished for the I-35 expansion, but neighbors say the state agency didn’t communicate with them.

By Nathan Bernier, KUT NewsJune 12, 2024 10:30 am, ,

From KUT News:

What’s it like to have the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) as a new neighbor? Some Austin residents north of Hancock Center got to find out this year when the state bought a 700-square-foot home and let it sit vacant for six months.

Along the path of I-35 in Central Austin, TxDOT is snapping up real estate, converting homes and businesses into new space for the highway as a long-planned expansiongears up this summer.

One of those properties, at 1039 E. 43rd St., was purchased by TxDOT in December. By late-May, the lawn was going wild and stood out against its relatively tidy neighbors on this block of single-story homes built immediately following World War II. Large plywood boards covered the doors and windows. One board had been torn off by people seeking shelter inside the vacant structure.

TxDOT had kept the house standing due to asbestos, a common building material in the 1940s. A contractor had to carefully remove the material now known for its serious health risks, including lung disease. But the neighbors had not been informed of the reason for the delay, leaving them frustrated and confused for months.

“The place is boarded up, graffiti on the walls. Grass is overgrown. There’s weeds. It just looks bad. It’s a blight on the neighborhood,” said Cody Coe, a TV sound engineer who bought the house in 2019 to rent out. He had lived in the neighborhood for 10 years.

Cody Coe, the former owner who was forced to sell the home to TxDOT in December, inspects the extent of the disrepair the home had fallen into by late May.
Ry Olszewski / KUT News

Coe was satisfied with how much TxDOT paid him for the house. But he said the property had become an eyesore. “This is the first thing you see when you come into the neighborhood,” he said.

As part of a decade-long construction project, I-35 will gain at least four new lanes from Ben White Boulevard to U.S. 290 East. The extra space will require 54 acres of Austin to be absorbed into the highway’s footprint.

The house at 1039 E. 43rd St. was one of more than 50 homes to be demolished along the eight-mile span of I-35, but it’s the only building set to be torn down on this block. The property had already been removed from the county’s tax rolls.

After the highway is expanded, the house next door will be the new corner lot.

TxDOT schematics of the I-35 expansion show north to the left and south to the right. The house at 1039 E. 43rd St. has been highlighted by KUT with a red rectangle. The property will become part of the frontage road and sidewalk, which is indicated by the thick blue line.

The single-story home neighboring TxDOT’s house was also constructed in 1946. The owner is 78-year-old Sam Fachorn, a self-described “wheel nut” who had a new gas tank for his vintage Chevrolet El Camino still in the shipping box in his living room.

Sam Fachorn shows off his tattoo of a red Chevrolet logo inside his home office. The longtime auto aficionado lives on East 43rd Street next to the vacant property owned by TxDOT.
Ry Olszewski / KUT News

“All I ever wanted to do in life was go fast,” Fachorn said of his fascination with cars. But he’s less fond of the state agency that builds highways for cars to go fast on.

“They kind of stink,” he said of TxDOT. “They’re taking a lot of property that was historic up and down this feeder road here on both sides.”

The first major phase of I-35 construction will start this summer along the southern portion of the project: from Ben White Boulevard to Holly Street. That includes building a new bridge over Lady Bird Lake. TxDOT has vowed to keep at least three lanes open in each direction for the duration of construction except for occasional closures, which it says will be scheduled during less busy hours.

But the state is already acquiring property along the northern portion of the project ahead of major construction set to begin in late 2026. That includes along the upper decks, elevated lanes constructed in 1975, which will be torn down so the main lanes of the highway can be lowered up to 40 feet below ground level.

If the city of Austin can come up with the money, the sunken lanes would be covered with a large deck supporting parks, farmers markets, splash pads or buildings up to two stories tall. The city has posted some concepts online and is asking people to give feedback through June 28.

“I can’t stop progress,” Fachorn said, leaning on his walker. “All a person can do is complain and that ain’t gonna do any good either.”

A conceptual illustration shows TxDOT’s vision for what I-35 could look like at 41st Street after the upper deck is removed, the main lanes are lowered and large deck plazas — or “caps,” as they’re called — are installed over the highway. The city is considering having a cap installed from 38 1/2 Street to Airport Boulevard, but it must raise hundreds of millions of dollars to pay for it.

But Fachorn had lots to say about his new next-door neighbor. He didn’t understand why TxDOT would buy a home and leave it there to degrade.

“I want to know when they’re going to do something. I would like to tell them that it needs to be done now. It needs to be done ASAP,” he said. “Take that house out of there, please,” he said with a laugh.

Fachorn wasn’t the only resident wondering what was going on with the abandoned structure. A couple of blocks away, Eva Mohrlok — who lives in the same home she grew up in as a child in the 1940s and ’50s — was baffled why this one home owned by the state was allowed to sit for months unattended.

“It does detract from the neighborhood, especially when it’s right there and that’s what you see, the first house,” she said. “I don’t know why they don’t either take it down now or keep it up.”

The asbestos abatement at 1039 E. 43rd St. has now been completed. A TxDOT contractor should finish tearing down the house this week, weather permitting, ending the six-month-long neighborhood mystery.

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