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City, nonprofit looking forward to Waller Creek development

Tuesday, December 14, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

Council Member Sheryl Cole likes to describe the Waller Creek tunnel project as her baby and the new nonprofit Waller Creek Conservancy around it as the parents who are ready and willing to feed it, clothe it, and send it off to college.


The quandary of the tunnel project has been that the only thing the city-county tax-increment financing district pays for is the storm water bypass tunnel. All the dreams and goals for the aboveground improvements, outlined in the Waller Creek District Master Plan, will have to come through private funding.


The tunnel project seeks to convert nearly 30 acres from the floodplain in the downtown area by constructing a one-mile-long stormwater bypass. The project, expected to cost some $40 million, will begin in Waterloo Park near Brackenridge Hospital and flow into Lady Bird Lake. It is scheduled to be finished sometime in 2014.

“Making the Waller vision real requires additional talent and treasure. People who truly care about Austin have stepped forward and committed to partner with the city as we create a dynamic public place,” said Cole. “We can’t do it without a public private partnership–and I am confident that our community will take this next step together just like other cities have done.”


So Cole, who championed the original financing with then-Council Member Betty Dunkerley, has been on a quest to find some way to get the $50 million to $100 million in proposed surface improvements constructed. What Cole discovered, after visiting Vancouver, Boulder, Houston, and Denver, is that public entities that have a vision for revitalization on the scale of Waller Creek don’t do it alone.


At Cole’s behest, City Council passed a resolution that directed the city manager “to explore a public-private partnership for the development, management, and operation of the Waller Creek District including Waterloo and Palm Park with the Waller Creek Conservancy and bring back to Council a recommendation for the structure of this partnership” as well as potential roles and responsibilities. 


The conservancy’s nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization was formed over the summer, with three heavy hitters at the plate: former Dell Inc. executive Tom Meredith; lawyer Melanie Barnes, who also happens to be the wife of political player Ben Barnes; and Melba Whatley of the investment firm MDW Interests.


“Everywhere I went,” Cole told the committee, “what I found was that they had an independent nonprofit that actually helped and supported the city in their downtown waterway. It just was not a city-county or a city-only project, especially if you were talking about a world-class amenity.”


And Cole, like the Citizens Advisory Committee, wants to see Waller Creek become a major draw for both downtown and the city as a whole. Cole’s update on the project’s financial situation comes at an opportune moment for the committee, which has already entertained updates on the actual tunnel project and the ROMA plan for some of the aboveground amenities.


“The ROMA plan is a nice plan, but all those pretty pictures?” Cole told the group. “They’re not funded.”


According to Urban Officer Jim Robertson, staff recently hosted an introductory meeting and several follow-up meetings with representatives of the Conservancy. The city will report back to Council with a “term sheet” outlining all of the significant issues – with proposals for how those issues will be addressed – but we have not gotten that far yet, Robertson said. 


“Since we will not have a completed term sheet prior to the running of the 90 days specified in the Council resolution, we will provide Council with a status report in response to that deadline,” Robertson said.


Chair Sam Archer agreed that this is the right time to consider the next phase of the CAC, either disbanding it or moving it forward in a new role. Already, the group has decided it needs to meet bimonthly, rather than monthly.


At this point, with most of its initial work done, the committee is looking for a new task, and Cole’s new Waller Creek Conservancy would provide that, Archer said.  Council recently directed city staff to explore and recommend the best configuration for just such an effort. Cole called this new model a first-of-its-kind for Austin, the type of high-dollar fundraising that could just as easily have gone to the new Central Library or many other high-profile, high-dollar projects in Austin.


“This has never been done before in Austin,” Cole emphasized.


As for the Waller Creek CAC, their new efforts received praise, but there were  questions about how the two entities – the citizens’ advisory group and the new nonprofit arm – will function together.


Cole said she wasn’t sure yet, but she did anticipate some type of joint relationship between the two groups, which would share a common interest and common goals. Cole said, in reviewing other models, there is often one governance group rather than two, although she is waiting to see what city staff recommends. She said she is expecting staff and the conservancy to agree on a memorandum of understanding within the next two months.

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