The Carvajal Group Blog

Waller Creek: The Missing Piece in Downtown Austin

February 24th, 2011

             

Waller Creek has long been a trickle of water flow in the hottest days of summer and a raging playscape for the most daring during the heavy rains on the East side of Austin’s central urban core. The water way begins its push near the historic Waterloo Park and makes its way down to Lady Bird Lake, weaving through the Eastern half of the Central Business District.  The creeks history is rich with dramatic storms and escapades of flooding that caused billions in damages and the loss of many lives.

 In 1975, a joint venture of urban planners, architects, landscape architects, and engineers created the Waller Creek Development Plan for improvements to the Waller Creek District that would address its capacity to flush water downstream and into Lady Bird Lake. It wasn’t until 1998 and two major floods later that the City Council initiated need to address flood control along Waller Creek. On May 2, 1998, a special election was held to authorize an increase in the hotel occupancy tax and to authorize the issuance of revenue bonds and certificates of obligation to finance the Convention Center expansion and Waller Creek tunnel construction as a means of flood control. City Council appropriated $135 million to the Convention Center Expansion/Waller Creek Construction fund of which $25 million went towards storm water controls on Waller Creek by way of a new tunnel. The project was to be completed in two phases in coordination with Brown and Root Inc/Epsey Padden as the lead engineers. 

In 2002, after the issuance of the project bonds in 1999, it was determined that the initial amount was not sufficient to cover the total cost of the tunnel project. The city determined that the total cost of construction would hover near $68 million and the project was postponed again for the second time.

More rainfall and flooding in 2004 reiterated the need for storm water controls along Waller and many other creeks in the Austin urban core. In 2006, the city’s bond election advisory committee conducted extensive research into priorities included in the 2006 Bond Election. The committee saw the Waller Creek Project as an important development in increasing the safety and livability of Downtown Austin’s eastern half. The determination came with one caveat; the city would need to seek alternative resources for funding outside general obligation bonds.

City Council held multiple public hearings in 2007 to evaluate public interest and input on the proposed Waller Creek Tunnel construction plan. Travis County and the City of Austin came to terms in negotiating a City-County Tax increment financing zone (TIF) #17 in late 2007-2008 with approval of the public to finance and move forward with the project. In May 2008 the city selected Roma Design Group to assist the community and city on a master plan for the new development.

After 2 years of planning, public input, and financing alternatives, the city council adopted the finalized Waller Creek Master Plan in June of 2010. The plan called for a redevelopment of the creek through 8 phases of projects beginning with the main shaft of the tunnel project approved on Feb 17, 2011. The main tunnel project is estimated to cost $49 million and will be one of the largest tunnel/storm water control projects in Travis County history. The mile long, 26 foot diameter tunnel will begin at 4th street and carry storm water beneath the creek into Lady Bird Lake. The first phase of the tunnel project will take over 28 acres of property out of the 100 year floodplain, creating a safer environment for redevelopment.

Once the risk of flooding is reduced, the Waller Creek District Master Plan will provide a conceptual guide for the efforts to revitalize the creek corridor. The plan calls for restoring the ecology of the creek, improving adjacent parks and open space, and enhancing pedestrian and bicycle connections between Lady Bird Lake, the University of Texas and East Austin.

The city’s main objective in funding the Waller Creek Master plan along with Travis County and its happy taxpayers is to fuse a nature setting within the urban core of the city. The plan envisions the restoration of the ecological value of the creek and emphasizes its role as a unique amenity that can contribute significantly to the livability and economic value in the East side of Downtown.

Hats off to the city for finally implementing a plan that is sure to bring considerable value to a portion of downtown that has been slow to redevelop with significant push. I like East downtown value long term when the city commits hundreds of millions of dollars to help out. Couple the new plan with the Rainey Street district, and you have downtown investment potential, possibly better than any other area of the urban core!

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