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Council hears Waller Creek update; prepares for approval

Tuesday, February 5, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

The timeline on the Waller Creek tunnel project is a long one, so long that it’s easy at times to forget this is a coordinated effort among every city department, three jurisdictions, multiple consultants and a tax-increment financing district board that will oversee the collection and use of incremental tax value along the one-mile corridor.


Last week’s presentation did not include a vote. That will not occur until Feb. 14. Between now and then, a board to govern the new 20-year tax-increment financing district, or TIF, will meet to approve the project budget and schedule, as its understood by the city, county and Austin Community College District. Then the plan goes back to Council. 


Travis County still has to approve the final codified TIF agreement with the city. Assistant Manager Rudy Garza, who led the city staff presentation, said that agreement is expected to make it through Commissioners Court this month.


Garza pointed out that the Waller Creek tunnel-and-bank project requires the coordination of Public Works, Watershed Protection and Development Review, Austin Water Utility and Engineering.


Initial funding in the first two years of the project will come out of the city’s refunding of revenue bonds on the Hilton Hotel, Garza told Council. The first incremental tax funds that will underwrite the district – all the city’s incremental increase in value and half the county’s – will not begin to roll in until 2009. The TIF district is broader than the actual tunnel itself and initial funds will be pulled from various projects already under construction. Downtown Officer Michael Knox presented a list of those projects at a recent meeting of the Waller Creek Citizens Advisory Committee.


The tunnel project is two parts: a one-mile-long, 22-foot diameter tunnel beneath Sabine Street that will stretch from an inlet in Waterloo Park to an outlet in Lady Bird Lake and work on the actual Waller Creek channel. Initial decisions before Council include water flow, as well as inlet and outlet features. Those choices will give the outside contractors a baseline from which to design the project.


The tunnel is a public works project so massive that it will take almost two years to design and four years to build. The expected construction date of the tunnel is 2014. The only significant comment on the tunnel construction last week came from Mayor Will Wynn, who was concerned about the Vignette property. Wynn said the property was still a piece of prime developable land and wanted to be assured that the route of the tunnel would not interfere with any possible underground garage construction.


Joe Pantalion of Watershed Protection and Development Review assured Wynn that the city was meeting with stakeholders and developers along the route to make sure no potential conflicts existed.


Urban Design Officer Jim Robertson noted that planning along the Waller Creek banks raises plenty of questions discussed in public stakeholder meetings. Should this be a district with its own character? Or should it blend into downtown? Does the city want to create a regional or national destination? And will the final vision for the banks of Waller Creek require changes to the city’s design and development regulations?


“What we’ve already gotten from the design workshop (in November) was a discussion of the different characteristics of the segments on the creek,” said Kim Springer, who serves as the Public Works Department’s outreach liaison on the project. “That’s no guarantee that’s what we’re going to do. What we did realize when we were talking to people about what they wanted down there was that many people had never gone down to Waller Creek. They really needed a visual orientation to the whole project area.”


Seven design teams responded to the initial Request for Qualifications. Robertson said city staff currently is reviewing the applicants for responsiveness and participation in the city’s minority- and women-owned business goals.


Robertson said the selection team would interview qualified teams and bring back a short list of finalists to Council in March. Once the contractor is picked, the city will negotiate a scope of work and contract that should be issued in May. Robertson estimated the process for completing a plan for the Waller Creek banks should take 24 months.

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