The Austin Chronicle

Beside the Point

Protecting the Furnishings

By Wells Dunbar, March 16, 2007, News

With spring and ecological awareness in full flower at City Hall, it's good to see that City Council Member Sheryl Cole is recycling – her jokes, that is. Corking an uncharacteristically short council meeting last week, Cole made a presentation on the benefits of building the long-delayed Waller Creek tunnel Downtown. Its construction would keep the creek's flow at a constant 3 to 4 feet, creating a Riverwalk of sorts – yet another attraction for Downtown, pitched of late as the city's communal space, our "living room," as it were. Noting the commonplace remark, Cole cracked that Downtown is different in that, while it's for everyone, "I don't let my kids anywhere near my living room." That just happens to be the same punch line she landed on the Travis County Commissioners Court while making her Waller pitch there last month. At first, a little funny – on second reading, a bit suggestive of a Cole household obsession?

Will the waterfront amphitheatre proposed for Waller come with plastic covers on the seats?

We kid as a way of welcoming Cole to the spotlight. Unlike fellow class of 2006 Council Member Mike Martinez, who's made waves on budget, labor issues, and more, Cole's been more quiet in her pursuits. Her Waller work with Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley has been her most prominent project to date, and Cole's emphasis on east-west considerations giving the project a humanizing dimension – perhaps the extra umph that's been needed all along – has pushed it closer to realization. It wasn't until Cole came aboard, Dunkerley said, "that I really got a vision of it in the breadth and depth that this project could be. I had always thought about it only as an economic development project." Winding through Waterloo Park (where a pond feature is planned) and down by the Mexican American Cultural Center, Cole envisions it as a way to break down the interstate divide between Downtown and East Austin. Doing the same in a more immediate fashion is the planned I-35 makeover project, where the dark parking lot at Seventh Street is to be beautified by designers Cotera & Reed. Cole's animated PowerPoint included 3-D computer modeling of the architects' plans for the overpass, liltingly set to Billy Joel's "River of Dreams": "In the middle of the night/I go walking in my sleep." Given B.J.'s predilection for partying, it's a shame they didn't animate a CG Piano Man, staggering to his car from Sixth Street.

The tunnel project would also pull a million square feet of Downtown out of the floodplain along the creek, in principle opening up millions of dollars in new developable land and tax revenue. That's how the city plans to pay for the thing, with tax increment financing, wherein the new property tax generated by the project is dedicated to pay for it – a plan previously stymied by Commissioners Court's reluctance to get involved. In its first joint project of this magnitude, the city will dedicate all the extra TIF cash to the tunnel's $123.7 million budget, along with the $25 million in bond dollars approved for it back in 1998 (plus a million or 2 in interest); the county, whose revenues will likewise go up, will pitch in half of the extra scratch for 20 years, after which the city is responsible for the rest of the cost. The county's participation in the TIF will likely be finalized later this month, with the city raring to go.

Black's Abacus

Maybe it's spring fever, but council's scant agenda mainly touched on (comparatively) sexier, more exciting measures – like becoming an official co-sponsor of South by Southwest. As of press time, no word on which city official's testicles will be used to tabulate the Festival's fee waivers. (And start blog-carping … now.) Even the controversies before council were excited and spirited. The Mexican American Cultural Center surfaced early in the meeting; to the chagrin of several speakers, it wasn't part of the $170 million in bond projects getting the green light that day. Martha Cotera, vice chair of the Mexican American Cultural Center Advisory Board, said if the MACC doesn't get its $5 million ASAP, the first phase of construction at the long-delayed center cannot be completed. The problem is very few speakers seemed to agree with council as to what exactly is entailed in phase one – a confusion apparently arising from the city drag-assing the project during the economic downturn, which led to rising construction costs and, in turn, a further scaled-back phase one. Ultimately, council released half a million to finish the current design. Ay!

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