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New cost-sharing plan floated for Waller Creek Tunnel

Wednesday, October 18, 2006 by

City officials have new numbers on the prospect of cost sharing for the Waller Creek tunnel project, but they aren’t in any rush to present those numbers publicly to Travis County Commissioners.

Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley and Council Member Sheryl Cole are taking the lead on the initiative, and a new proposal has begun to float this week. Dunkerley calls the feelers out to the county informal, an update of the project numbers to consider.

“We have not made a formal proposal to the commissioners,” Dunkerley told the In Fact Daily on Tuesday “What we’ve put together is a little bit of a history of the creek – what’s good about it, what’s bad, the history of the project, the overview of the tunnel, how the tunnel would operate – and the new numbers.”

The bottom line is that the tunnel project still works, but the cost is up. The estimated price of the project, updated in July, is now at around $123.6 million. With about $27.3 million cash on hand, that leaves $96.3 million to finance, which is expected to turn into an estimated $115 million over 17 years, given both inflation and a debt service rate of 5 percent.

That’s just construction, though. The city estimates the annual maintenance and operations at $53.1 million over 13 years, and the total debt service of $169 million the city and county would share.

Under the proposal, the city would dedicate 100 percent of its increased property taxes and the county would dedicate 50 percent of its increased revenue within a proposed Waller Creek zone, netting about $171.8 million. That would leave $2.7 million in net revenue.

“We would do a TIF up and down the creek and part of the Rainey Development,” Dunkerley explained, saying that the goal is to create a plan “where the county is at absolutely no risk.” The tax revenue would come from additional, not existing, tax dollars that would be generated by new development in a defined tax-increment finance district. The city would take responsibility for the bonds and, after the bonds are paid off in 20 years, would agree to handle all future maintenance on the project.

Commissioner Karen Sonleitner – who failed to win the Democratic primary in March – was the partnership’s biggest critic. She’ll be off the court soon, so it’s not surprising that city officials are not exactly rushing to get a vote before she leaves.

Cole says the Waller Creek project is crucial, a chance to create a venue that will outlast her lifetime and create tremendous returns for the city. She describes the ability to bring land out of the flood plain – and into development on the east side of downtown – the kind of project that is “like Mueller, times 10.”

“I see it as a potential catalyst to bring East Austin and West Austin together, because it will cause us to work on the connectivity issue,” Cole said. “This is my vision. I see it as a catalyst for bridging the East-West divide.”

The project will not only bring development but also improve the water quality in the watershed, Cole said. She doesn’t deny the price tag is high, but notes that it will ultimately result in a positive cash flow for the city.

ZAP puts 60-foot lid on Arboretum Towers project

Developers of the proposed Arboretum Tower retirement condominium project will go to the City Council this week for a zoning change with a zoning recommendation they requested from the Zoning and Platting Commission, but in addition to the MF-6 recommendation, the ZAP suggested a height limit of 60 feet as requested by the neighborhood. The design for the planned 130-unit condo tower calls for 11 stories, or 120 feet in height, and the developers still plan to present that request at Thursday’s Council meeting.

“This project has to be tall, because the economics of this area of Austin require it,” Stuart Alderman, the architect for the project, told the ZAP. “In order to get the type of mixed-use, high density development in this area that we want, we have to go taller. It only works if it’s tall enough to take advantage of the efficiencies of construction, if the numbers of units get the views and the height that allows sales prices that make the project feasible. This seems, to us, to be a choice between a taller project and no project, rather than a medium project. This is a compromise that gets us where we need to go. We need to get over our fear of heights. What we really need to fear is unrestrained horizontal growth.”

Along with the developers, architect, and agent Amelia Lopez-Phelps, some citizens not directly involved with the project also spoke in favor of the MF-6 zoning change. “I’ve seen the renderings of the proposed development, it looks like it will fit beautifully into the neighborhood,” said Forrest Preece. “It’s designed to be as far away from free-standing houses as possible. It’s just a perfect thing for the neighborhood. Being a pioneer is difficult. What they’re proposing to do here is something that’s not being done right now.”

But Preece does not live in the neighborhood, and several people who do live near the proposed site of the project at 11601 Jollyville Road told the ZAP they did not like the project.

“He is trying to put his tower in a place where it doesn’t belong, and a place where it will stick out and be an eyesore,” said Leslie Henges Dolliver, whose parents own office space near the site. Other residents were concerned that a dramatic up-zoning would trigger similar requests, leading to a wholesale transformation of the neighborhood.

“There are no other buildings of this height in the entire area, and it’s unrealistic to think you would have one re-zoning and others would not try to follow,” said Jenny Shafer. “It’s spot zoning. It’s granting a special privilege to this one owner of this one lot at the expense of the surrounding property owners.”

The ZAP voted to recommend GR-MU and MF-6 for one tract and LO-MU for the second tract, with a conditional overlay applying to both tracts to limit the height of any development to 60 feet. That recommendation is in line with the neighborhood’s request to limit the height of the tower.

Commissioner Keith Jackson, who made the motion to support MF-6, said the density of 54 units per acre allowed under that zoning was appropriate for the site. While Commissioner Clarke Hammond suggested MF-5 would be more appropriate, since it contained stricter development limits, Jackson said the city’s most intense residential zoning category would be appropriate for the rapidly-growing area.

“The center of Austin is Northwest Hills, not far from US 183 and Loop 360,” he said, referring to the growing population in Northwest Austin. “There are major employment areas up in that area, there’s a huge office complex with several hundred thousand feet of office. There are businesses up in that area. That’s where I am with this. The neighborhood has said, repeatedly, that the issue is height, not density.” Jackson’s motion passed 9-0.

Should the Council choose to support the developer’s request for MF-6 without the 60 foot height limit, the project would still need to go to the Board of Adjustment for a height variance, since the maximum allowable height under MF-6 is 90 feet. Commissioner Joseph Martinez left the Northwest Austin residents at the meeting with a few parting words of wisdom, warning them that “development is alive and well in your neighborhood. You will be back here, many times in the next couple of months. Please get organized.”

©2006 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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