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Developing Stories: Waller Creek: $34 Million Runs Through It

Will the Waller Creek Master Plan hold water?

By Katherine Gregor, Fri., April 16, 2010

The aspirations are grand, but the funding and execution may take a generation to realize. That was the message heard by more than 150 Austinites on April 7 at a town hall meeting hosted by the Waller Creek Citi­zen Advisory Committee to review the final draft of the Waller Creek District Master Plan. "This will become a critical part of defining who we are as a city, around the world, for generations to come," declared Council Member Sheryl Cole. She placed the initiative – reinventing an entire district of Downtown, with its centerpiece a redone Waller Creek – on par with city-defining projects such as San Antonio's River Walk, Houston's Discovery Green, and Chicago's Millennium Park.

The urban design consultants (ROMA Aus­tin, recently rechristened McCann Adams Studio) have completed their work and passed the baton to the committee, the city, and the community. The implementation strategy is broken into nine separate projects (see "Creek/Trail Improvements, Estimated Costs," below) – the first three, recommended to start, are estimated to cost $34.1 million. (The Waller Creek Tunnel, a separate, original project that would remove the district from the floodplain by means of a tunnel, will be funded with a tax-increment financing district, but that TIF contains no money for the unfunded improvements envisioned in the District Master Plan.) Some project elements could be funded out of the city's capital improvement budgets, said consultant Jim Adams, or bond money, perhaps including the proposed November transportation bond election. He said a more detailed "toolkit" for funding and implementation is contained in the Parks and Open Space section of the draft Downtown Austin Plan.

Developed with extensive community input, the master plan includes detailed treatment of three major areas: 1) creek health and open space, 2) pedestrian and bicycle pathways, and 3) promoting redevelopment activity and new investments throughout the district. It also includes an implementation strategy and proposed development standards, including some upzoning.

"The master plan is well-thought-out and beautifully executed, but this is only a beginning," commented advisory committee member Lynn Osgood. "We as a city, and as citizens, will need to work hard to make sure that this document does not end up on a shelf. The plan needs to be the foundation for a longer-term implementation strategy. This can be to our advantage if we start now to creatively and strategically develop the public-private partnerships and community support that will bring this project to fruition. ... Right now it's a small and lonely little creek – it's going to need all our energy and ideas."

"The whole effort to redevelop this part of Downtown is long overdue, and it could be fantastic," commented former Council Member Brigid Shea. An aide to Cole noted that the district still needs completed plans for redesigning Palm Park (toward the southern side) and Waterloo Park (at the northern tip). Toward that end, the Parks and Recre­ation Department displayed an initial draft concept for an ambitious redo of Waterloo Park, developed by the Project for Public Spaces. PARD and the Austin Parks Foun­dation are in the early stages of considering a parks conservancy or other public-private partnership model to steward all of the many parks projects within the master plan.

A master plan rendering depicts 3-D modeling of the maximum potential buildout of "opportunity sites" within the Waller Creek TIF District. It shows more than a dozen new high-rise towers potentially rising in the district, primarily in the Rainey Street area, as well as extensive midrise redevelopment all along the corridor. A large portion of the corresponding increases in property values and taxes would be required to pay off the TIF bonds.

Reviewing the buildout image after the meeting, developer Terry Mitchell warned that attracting the level of private investment projected will require a public investment in transforming the district on the front end. Mitchell, who is on the development team for the Austonian, said he loved the concept but that pragmatically, "this district needs to be competitive with everywhere else I could put my future project." The high-rise housing will be expensive and thus high-end; the condos could run $500 per square foot, and no one's going to spend that to live on a still skanky creek.

"This district is going to have to be extraordinary to overcome the negative [impact] of I-35, with its 24-hour noise and exhaust and pollution and visual effects," he added. "You have to look at it realistically, and you need to make it happen economically." With regard to the TIF, he asked, "Why aren't you [i.e., the city] putting in another $50 [million] to $70 million, to create the place that would cause people to want to live there?"

That might indeed make the real estate economics work, but it doesn't explain where the city might find another $70 million of tax increment financing for infrastructure investments on top (literally and figuratively) of the tunnel itself. The contentious $130 million tunnel TIF was literally decades in the making – it's difficult to imagine how long it might take to make another deal even half as large.

Creek/Trail Improvements, Estimated Costs

Developing Stories: Waller Creek: $34 Million Runs Through It

1) Lady Bird Lake to Fifth Street: Landscape preservation/revegetation, trail lighting, new Third Street bridge, etc. ($21.7 million)

2) Sabine Street: Promenade from Fourth to Sixth streets ($4.2 million)

3) North of Sixth Street: Landscape preservation/revegetation, trail lighting, etc. ($8.2 million)

4) Palm Park: Improvements/cost to be determined

5) Red River: Bike lanes, restriping (cost TBD)

6) Rainey, Sabine, Second: Street extensions ($11.3 million)

7) Third to Seventh: Channel repair, landscape preservation/revegetation, new pedestrian bridges, etc. ($1.9 million)

8) Symphony Square/Plaza Park: Parking lot demolition, landscape preservation/revegetation, etc. ($700,000)

9) Waterloo Park: Improvements/cost TBD

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