Naked City

Council Watch: Draining Funds

Naked City
By Doug Potter

Waller Creek is an eyesore. In many places, it's barely distinguishable from the average drainage ditch. And it isn't just any eyesore -- it's an eyesore that floods. As land on either side of the creek is paved over, runoff from heavy rains flows into the creekbed, which routinely overflows its banks during cloudbursts. Twelve roadways and 40 buildings, mainly on the east end of downtown, lie in the creek's 100-year floodplain. Efforts to restore the creek and the land in its floodplain have a long way to go, as the City Council learned at a briefing last Thursday on the Waller Creek tunnel project.

Fixing up Waller Creek has been on the city's to-do list for 20 years, and recovering land in the floodplain is even more critical now, as the city turns its eye toward redeveloping neglected property along downtown's eastern edge. Under current conditions, only about 100,000 square feet of land in this part of town can be developed without increasing the likelihood of floods, according to George Oswald, project manager for the Waller Creek tunnel within the city's Watershed Protection Department, who addressed the council Thursday.

In May of 1998, voters approved $25 million in bonds to build the Waller Creek tunnel, a project that promised not only to stop the flooding, but to take a step or two toward improving the creek itself. The "tunnel" -- essentially a massive pipe 22 feet in diameter -- would channel water out of Waller Creek at Waterloo Park during flood conditions, carrying it underground for nearly a mile downstream, and returning it to the creek bed just above the point where the creek meets Town Lake. During dry spells, the tunnel would work in the opposite direction -- directing water out of Town Lake and into Waller Creek, "enhancing the aesthetics of the creek and the aquatic habitat," Oswald said. The project also includes more traditional public facilities (including an amphitheatre) that would integrate the tunnel into Waterloo and Town Lake parks.

All of this comes at a price, of course -- a much higher price than originally expected. Months after $25 million in bonds for the project were approved, the first estimate of the tunnel's cost, by independent engineering firm Lumas and Associates, was found to have fallen short by half. City staff has determined that the tunnel will actually cost about $53 million to build; the $25 million originally approved for the plan would only pay for a much smaller pipe that would recover only 20% of the land in the floodplain. Moreover, Oswald said, if a smaller pipe were installed, there would be no affordable way to expand it in the future.

What to do? Well, Oswald told the council Thursday that a smaller, somewhat less effective version of the tunnel could be built for just $46 million, meaning the council would only have to come up with $21 million to start fixing up the creek. Another solution, suggested by Watershed Protection's Director of Finance John Stephens but given a cool reception by the council, would be to make up the $28 million with certificates of obligation, which would be financed by a hike in drainage and property taxes throughout the city.

On the other hand, the council could ask businesses that would benefit from the construction of the tunnel to pitch in the extra money in the form of a tax increase, an idea that found some sympathetic ears on the dais Thursday. "I think where we are headed -- if we do it at all -- is a public-private situation where we share the responsibility," said Council Member Beverly Griffith. "I think the citizens are up for the $25 million, but I'm not sure how much more they are up for."

Downtown business owners were less than enthusiastic about that proposal, which would likely increase their taxes considerably, given the high cost of the tunnel and the relatively small area of the Public Improvement District where taxes would be increased. Charles Betts, president of the Downtown Austin Alliance, says it's unfair to ask businesses in the floodplain to shoulder the extra $28 million by themselves. As floodplain property is recovered and becomes more valuable, Betts argued, property owners' taxes will increase anyway.

"Private property owners are going to pay increased taxes as the value of their property increases, and that's altogether fair," Betts said. "To hit them up ahead of time, though, does not seem reasonable. To hit them up for part of the cost of the project is kind of double-dipping them." No decision was reached on how to fund Waller on Thursday.

Smooth Transitions

The council voted Thursday to rezone property in the Montopolis area of East Austin to allow the homeless assistance nonprofit Life Works to build a transitional housing center in the mostly residential neighborhood. Grove Place, as the complex will be called, will serve homeless youths who have completed high school and maintained jobs by placing them temporarily in low-cost apartments; 20% of Grove Place's 190 units will be affordable housing, with rents as low as $238 a month. Another 10% of the units will be adapted for residents with impaired mobility, and 2% will be modified for hearing and visually impaired residents. All but a few speakers who showed up at Thursday's meeting spoke in support of the project, including representatives of local neighborhood associations.

Vignette: Doing the Waive

A finalized agreement with Vignette, the software company that warmed the city's heart by saying they would locate their world headquarters in downtown's neglected east side, will be taken up again this Thursday, the 14th, after a brief postponement. The city's love affair with Vignette cooled down a degree or two when it became clear the company expected to be reimbursed by the city for the improvements it planned to make to Waller Creek, but the city seems prepared to go through with the bargain.

It hardly hurts that the ongoing debate over what to do with Stratus Properties -- whether to make a deal, and when, and how -- has stolen the spotlight of infamy from Vignette's plans, which, if passed, will cost the city as much as $25 million in "economic development "grants and waived water quality, inspection, and right-of-way fees. Local environmental activists, including Save Our Springs board chair Mark Tschurr (who opposed the deal individually, not in connection with SOS), have raised a hue and cry about the size of the proposed subsidy, but this deal should prove far less sticky than others currently on the council's plate.

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Waller Creek Tunnel, Downtown Austin Alliance, Charles Betts, George Oswald, Watershed Protection Department, John Stephens, Beverly Griffith, LifeWorks, Vignette

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