Friday, June 21, 2013 by Charlotte Moore

Council approves 20-year plan to build out Waller Creek development

City Council approval of a plan to turn the two-mile stretch of Waller Creek into a nature-lover’s utopia was delayed for a time Thursday by a belaboring of the legalese of the multi-phased project. Council Members Laura Morrison and Kathie Tovo both had an 11th-hour barrage of questions regarding the design documentation.

The joint development agreement between the Waller Creek Conservancy, the City of Austin and the Waller Creek Local Government Corporation, is a unique public-private endeavor somewhat similar to the multi-year, multi-phased, mixed-use Mueller development.

If the project goes according to its extremely ambitious plan, in about 20 years time Waller Creek, from Lady Bird Lake to Waterloo Park, will be a destination spot consisting of an elaborate chain of five parks, a performance venue called The Poppy, and a pedestrian pontoon bridge.

Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, a staunch supporter of the development, was visibly elated to give the project the city’s official go-ahead.

“It’s a happy day, in the words of one of the old Negro spirituals,” she said. “The process of actually finding people in the conservancy who would commit to take this project was not easy because it has not been done in Austin; a true public-private partnership where individual private citizens come together and say ‘let’s make our central downtown a crown jewel for the entire city.’ ”

With that, Cole moved to approve the plan. Mayor Lee Leffingwell seconded the motion, which might have smoothly ushered in the widely expected unanimous Council vote.

Morrison had other plans.

“I think that it’s really critical we make sure the details of this are right and serve the community in a successful way,” she said. Morrison said after her staff pored through the 100 pages of the project documentation “a few things came out that I wanted to raise with my colleagues for discussion.”

What ensued for nearly an hour was a volley of discussion between Council and city staff. Morrison raised questions on identifying easements in design guidelines, how much power the city would have over controlling the number of cocktail lounges that might spring up along the path of development, how public and residential spaces would be separated in the design, extending the creek setback about 30 feet, even concerns about fencing facing Waller Creek.

She also raised the issue of how much control the city would have over changes that might be made to the design plan which prompted Mayor Leffingwell to acknowledge third party authority.

“That’s the way conservancies work,” he said. “They raise money. They also have a lot of management authority of this entire project. If we start chipping away at that, I think we run the risk of sabotaging the entire project.”

Morrison went on to raise the issue of naming rights, voicing concern over corporate involvement leading to an overabundance of branding. Mayor Leffingwell chimed in again, saying that prohibiting or refusing to name parts of the development after corporations would be crippling. “I would envision a lot of large corporations making significant contributions in exchange for naming rights,” he said.

Morrison’s last concern was regarding the approval, acceptance, display and maintenance of public art. She ended her questioning with the assertion, “We have the concepts but the devil’s in the details.”

With that, Tovo took over. Her concerns ranged from needing a definition of the term “substantial changes” of the plan to wondering aloud how many public events were anticipated to occur throughout the development process.

One of the most animated points of the arduous back-and-forth came when Tovo announced she wanted assurance that areas of Waller Creek would be left in their natural state.

“I think if we change anything that did away with any of that wonderful green space and the natural space, either watershed protection or the three founders of the conservancy would have our heads,” said Assistant City Manager Sue Edwards, to which Leffingwell promptly replied, “That sounds like assurance to me,” evoking much-needed chamber levity.

Ultimately, Council unanimously approved the plan.

Now begins the task of raising the unknown amounts of money needed to fund each of the phases of the long-term project. To view the plans, go to www.wallercreek.org.

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