Austin @ Large: Before the Flood

No light at the end of the Waller Creek Tunnel

Austin At Large
Well, the streets of Prague and Dresden are filled with sludge, an opportune time to talk about great cities and their waterways. I remember something I wrote a few years back: "They're all boondoggles until you find one that you like."

I was talking about the Waller Creek Tunnel, which I liked more than certain readers did and still do. At the time, the price tag for the tunnel -- which would divert floodwaters underground from Waterloo Park to Town Lake -- was $25 million, the sum for which voters would later (in 1998) approve bonds. Today, though, the tunnel is estimated to cost $46 million, more than the city can afford given recent declines in hotel bed tax revenues (which would have serviced those 1998 bonds).

Last week, City Hall abandoned the tunnel, after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided it didn't pass their cost-benefit test and thus didn't merit their participation. Earlier stratagems involving the LCRA, Vignette (when that once-major employer planned its HQ for the foot of Waller Creek), and other partners likewise failed. I find this very sad, but not surprising in These Hard Times, and the tunnel won't be the last bright civic idea to escape the City of Ideas.

The saga of the Waller Creek Tunnel is not a generic urban-politics story, but a specifically Austin one. Basically, we won't build the tunnel, and a big chunk of downtown Austin will remain underdeveloped and more dangerous than necessary, because of Austin's ambivalence about becoming a big city.

Up the Creek Without a Tunnel

Floods on Waller Creek -- which, even after fairly ordinary storms, overflows its banks downtown with surprising speed and force -- are dangerous, pollute Town Lake, and destroy property. That includes not just expensive private property like the Marriott and Sheraton hotels, or Symphony Square, or Stubb's, but expensive city-owned property like the Police Department and Municipal Court and Waller Creek Center (the former Avante Building). The list includes the Convention Center; that's why the tunnel got wrapped (via a quirk in a state law designed to help Houston and Dallas pay for new sports arenas) into the center expansion as a "venue project."

But if the only goal of the tunnel was flood control, there are -- as the Corps decided, and the city has now reluctantly agreed -- cheaper, though less effective, ways of meeting that goal. Currently under review as Plan B is sinking UT's intramural fields, which sit farther up Waller Creek (the creek heads in St. Johns), to form a massive retention pond. That doesn't do much to combat runoff from the creek's lower watershed, which is almost entirely developed and impervious. Even a tunnel capturing floodwaters at 15th Street wouldn't eliminate destructive flooding from runoff within downtown itself.

But it's a damn sight better than the status quo, which is nothing, even though much money has been spent, and wasted, trying to make Waller Creek into the urban amenity that the pros -- including the Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team that gave Austin its downtown marching orders more than a decade ago -- think Austin should exploit to the fullest. Instead, Waller Creek is an ugly drainage ditch lined with artful limestone walkways and a hike-and-bike trail that is, to put it kindly, under-utilized, despite its proximity to the busiest parts of downtown. (Not coincidentally, Waller Creek is also a major sheltering point for Austin's street community, which has done its inadvertent part to depress the cost-benefit analysis for the tunnel.)

Unfortunately, the only way to justify spending eight-figure sums on the tunnel is to bank on increasing property values -- and, thus, large-scale urban redevelopment on the banks of a tamed creek. In short, a "creekwalk." And there Austin would not go; even though Waller Creek runs through the heart of a metro area of 1.5 million people, treating it as urban space is held by too many people as an affront to local values.

Never-Never Land

Once upon a time, downtown visions included a tax increment financing district -- wherein revenues from increasing property values could be earmarked for infrastructure within the district, like the tunnel. The Waller Creek corridor has always been prominent in those visions, and if we had a TIF we would have a tunnel, plain and simple. However, TIFs, though standard urban tools elsewhere in America, are controversial in Texas because they've been often misused -- famously to fund an outlet mall on vacant land in the Metroplex. And a downtown TIF would require an agreement between the city, county, and school district, the sort of agreement that in Austin is notably rare.

But much of the hackle raising about a Waller Creek TIF was natively, and in my view naively, populist -- subsidies to fat-cat downtown developers, et cetera. And it built on typical Austin attitudes about urban life; "creekwalk" meant "Hard Rock Cafe," as if Austin could avoid that terrible fate if we left Waller Creek "a running sore," in Kirk Watson's famous phrase. We didn't. (The irony of the Save Our Springs Alliance's holding its 10th-anniversary bash at the Hard Rock is probably lost on recent Austinites.)

Similar sentiments reigned when the city embarked on design charrettes in 1998 (after the tunnel bonds were approved) for the future Waller Creek. This exercise pitted creekwalk fans against advocates fighting the creek's "urbanization" and aiming to keep it natural, green, parklike - you know, Austin-like. This though Waller Creek stopped being a wild place when the first Austinites -- and I mean the first Austinites, like Gen. Burleson and his Waterloo families -- settled and built along its banks.

Even without a TIF or a creekwalk, could redevelopment have boosted local tax rolls enough to justify the tunnel? The city thinks so and is sad that the Army Corps didn't figure this into its analysis. No matter what one thinks downtown Austin should be, it's hard to see how leaving its east flank underdeveloped and subject to disastrous flooding helps. A post-tunnel creek could also have been home to new housing, or more community spaces like (one of my past failed bright ideas) the new City Hall. A civic center with a creek running through it -- now that says "Austin," does it not?

But it's too late now, we suppose, to either turn Waller Creek into a pretty park or do something truly urban with it. And in the heart of downtown, where the city meets nature, neither will be well served.

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Waller Creek Tunnel, Waterloo Park, Town Lake, city council, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, LCRA, Vignette, Downtown, Waller Creek Center, Convention Center, Regional / Urban Design Assistance Team, R / UDAT, tax increment financing, Save Our Springs Alliance, Gen. Burl

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