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Council approves $110M for Waller Creek chain of parks

Friday, May 25, 2018 by Jack Craver

City Council voted Thursday to pump another $110 million into the Waller Creek chain of parks.

The money committed by the city is part of a long-term $375 million project to turn 35 acres of land along the creek into a chain of parks and civic spaces. The other $275 million is supposed to come from private fundraising conducted by the Waller Creek Conservancy, a nonprofit.

The city is funding the project, which broke ground last fall, with an urban development tool known as tax increment financing.

The way TIF works, the city borrows money to pay for capital projects in a certain area based on the presumption that that investment will lead to higher property values in the surrounding area. At the same time, it sets up a special district that includes many of the surrounding properties. During the life of that district, any property tax revenue derived from the increased value on those properties is designated toward paying off the debt.

The Waller Creek Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ), was initially set up in 2007 to fund construction of the Waller Creek Tunnel, which would protect much of the surrounding area from flooding, thereby making it more attractive to development and more valuable. At the same time, the Waller Creek Conservancy was formed to raise money to build the parks.

The TIRZ was scheduled to close in 2028. On Thursday, however, Council voted to invest another $110 million and extend the life of the TIRZ until 2041.

Peter Mullan, executive director of the Waller Creek Conservancy, urged Council to approve the funding to unleash the potential of Waller Creek, which he called an “untapped resource and opportunity” that had long been neglected by the city.

“We have a clear path forward to reverse that pattern of neglect,” he said, adding that donors in the private sector would be more inclined to commit to the park if they see that the city is committed to the project as well.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo said that she believed the project could be “transformational for our city,” and emphasized that she hoped it would be a place where people from across the community could gather.

A number of speakers described the project as a mechanism for bridging the historic divide between East and West Austin. That was one of the goals of the project that former Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, two days removed from winning the Texas House District 46 runoff election, urged Council not to forget.

To that end, Cole came to Council urging that it expand the membership on the Waller Creek Local Government Corporation to reflect different segments of the community. Currently, the board consists of five members appointed by the Waller Creek Conservancy and five city staffers.

Cole urged Council to add eight new members from organizations devoted to environmentalism, fighting homelessness and representing minority communities. Because Waller Creek and the surrounding area has long been a place where homeless people live, the plans to revitalize the area have been intertwined with a discussion about addressing homelessness downtown.

“The creek cannot be restored until we control the human impact that is hurting the creek, making the creek unhealthy,” said Jo Kathryn Quinn, head of Caritas of Austin, an organization focused on homelessness.

Council did not approve Cole’s suggested change on Thursday, but an aide to Cole said that she is hopeful that it will revisit the subject in the coming weeks.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo said in an email to the Austin Monitor that she is considering bringing a resolution forward next month to use additional revenue generated in the TIF district (beyond the $110 million for the park) to create housing for the homeless.

Not everybody who spoke on the item was supportive. Bill Bunch, executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance, cast doubt on the idea that the increased property values that Council is hoping to use to pay off the debt would in fact be the result of the new park, rather than simply a result of ongoing increases in property values downtown.

If that is the case, he argued, the city is spending $110 million that could be spent on other critical needs, including its existing parks and the many pools that are threatened with closure. He also accused the city of neglecting the health of Barton Springs, which he called Austin’s “lifeblood.”

“More people come to Barton Springs in one month of the summer than will come to Waller Creek Park over the next 10 to 15 years,” predicted Bunch.

Zilker resident David King similarly dismissed the proposed park as mostly a downtown project for the affluent.

Others mentioned that the Waller Creek Tunnel has not turned out as well as expected. The city is currently in a legal battle with the firm that built the tunnel over what it alleges is a deficient product.

The critiques fell on deaf ears, however. Council voted unanimously to approve the extension of the TIRZ and the associated $110 million of funding. Council Member Ellen Troxclair was absent.

Adler described the vote in historic terms. “I’m not sure that this Council will do anything that will be remembered 150 years from now other than this,” he said.

Artist’s rendering of a future Palm Park courtesy of the Waller Creek Conservancy.

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