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Waller Creek town hall yields ideas on development and preservation

Thursday, April 8, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

The big question to emerge from last night’s Waller Creek District town hall meeting was one familiar to everyone involved: How are we going to pay for this?


The Waller Creek process is all about meetings, from meetings on parks and open space to monthly citizen advisory board meetings and even a few charettes. Downtown Officer Michael Knox swears he still has his notes from the first charette on upgrading Waller Creek, dating all the way back to 1999.


As much talk as there has been about Waller Creek, no one has any idea how to pay for the amenities and improvements above the Waller Creek tunnel. The tunnel work, of course, will be funded through a joint city-county tax-increment finance district that will set aside taxes on increased property values to pay off bonds.


“San Antonio’s success should be our embarrassment, considering how great we think our city is,” said Citizens Advisory Committee Member Ted Siff, alluding to the creation of the River Walk. “Discovery Green was done in 36 months. We don’t have the foundations that Houston has, but we’ve got the creative energy.”


Mark Yznaga of Liveable City said that is the problem with most Austin plans:  Everyone is good at planning. The point is to turn that plan into reality.  And that includes, along the way, coming up with ways to fund those ideas.


“I think it’s just another lesson we’re learning,” Yznaga said. “We’re missing that piece in Austin plans.”


In a previous meeting on Tuesday evening, the Waller Creek Citizen Advisory Committee had discussed the possibility of trying to include some aspects of the massive development in a $100 million transportation bond election the City Council is considering for November. Members of the committee present at the Tuesday meeting appeared unanimous in their desire to include some elements of the master plan, such as trail and bike path design, in the bond and to make those intentions part of the committee’s formal recommendations to Council.


The focus would be on design rather than construction, since construction cannot begin on any part of the Waller Creek Master Plan until the tunnel project is completed in 2014, and the November bond, if passed, is expected to cover only projects that can be completed in two years. Committee Chairman Sam Archer urged the group to start identifying aspects of the plan that could be included in a bond and also to look for other sources of funding. “This is our work, from here on out,” he said. “To figure out how we tie all these elements together.”


Last night’s town hall meeting included about an hour of give-and-take around seven stations tied to various aspects of the plan. Members of the advisory committee, led by Chair Sam Archer, laid out themes that emerged from a number of those stations during a wrap up of the evening’s session: 


Master Plan – Attendees wanted to encourage lower-rise development and preserving Austin’s heritage in the area. Some speakers had questions about enhanced mass transit, one requested a sidewalk study along major corridors, and another argued that parking garages next to Waterloo Park should be included in the redevelopment mix.


Bike and Ped Circulation Concept – Several speakers expressed concerns about the proper balance of bikes and non-bike traffic, either in separated or combined lanes. Attendees raised questions as to whether Red River is broad enough to accommodate a bicycle lane. Finding the proper balance was the overall theme.


Environmental Restoration – Several participants expressed opinions concerning the mix of the natural environment and new development. They asked questions about how the delta and small islands in Waller Creek would be protected. Some were concerned about the removal of trees from Waterloo Park. Most attendees in this group wanted to see a balance between low-scale development and nature. Many commented on how parking would fold into the development.


Proposed Development Standards – Attendees encouraged the city to go beyond the basic ADA requirements and make the space enjoyable for everyone. They expressed concerns about traffic spillover and connectivity on the south end of Waller. One speaker made a suggestion to incorporate a shoreline sculpture garden, while another expressed a desire to see affordable housing written into the standards. Still another wrote that tall buildings should be shifted to Congress Avenue: “We want to be more like Montreal, not Vancouver.” Someone suggested public restrooms.


Implementation and Next Steps – Funding and where to find it was a big question in this group. Attendees suggested different project phasing. Those who commented wanted a plan that would not be left on the shelf. Attendees supported continued public events and feedback opportunities to maintain momentum.


In his closing remarks, Archer said that the Waller Creek Citizens Advisory Committee would be supporting the Waller Creek plan as it moved through the approval process. The plan should hit the Planning Commission in May and Council in June.


The group also intended to support a number of other initiatives: the initiation of a procurement process to bring a landscape architect on board to complete the final design and engineering for the trail and corridor improvement projects along Waller Creek; a heightened regimen of maintenance and security along the creek; the coordination and staging of public events, fairs, and performances throughout the creek corridor; the promotion of the trail improvement project through marketing and publicity; and an evaluation of options to present recommendations on potential public-private partnerships to fund the improvements.

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