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South Central Waterfront financing plan expected next month

Friday, November 19, 2021 by Amy Smith

After many years of vision planning and discussions, two major redevelopment projects – the South Central Waterfront and the Colony Park Vision Plan in Northeast Austin – are showing some degree of progress in relation to how the projects would be financed.

City staffers are expected to present a preliminary financing plan for South Central Waterfront to City Council on Dec. 9 for approval, which would then open the door for creating a TIRZ, shorthand for a tax increment reinvestment zone.

Council received an update on potential financing tools for both South Central Waterfront and Colony Park at its Tuesday work session. The briefing was in response to two resolutions passed last month in an attempt to generate momentum around these endeavors. The two projects are massive undertakings involving the city’s Economic Development Department, Financial Services, and the Housing and Planning Department.

Both projects will include mass transit rail lines, affordable housing, trails and open space, and commercial development projects, many of which will also likely include affordable housing units. The most high-profile of the commercial developments is the planned unit development proposed for the Austin American-Statesman site on South Congress Avenue, which is currently undergoing city review.

The South Central Waterfront planning area covers 18 acres along South First Street, Barton Springs Road, Riverside Drive and South Congress. The city-owned One Texas Center within these boundaries is of key interest because of the opportunity to create affordable housing as well as additional city office space.

Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo started off the series of departmental presentations with a note of caution. “I do want to say upfront that even with a (TIRZ), there would be a substantial funding gap for the needed public improvements, meaning that additional work will still need to be done to identify other funding mechanisms to pay for the South Central Waterfront public improvements.”

Nevertheless, he said the team will continue exploring other potential financing tools before returning to City Council next month.

Mayor Steve Adler stated his apprehension about the city’s ability to make infrastructure improvements prior to development projects getting underway – a cart-before-the-horse issue that has long been a frustration of city planners and residents alike.

“I’m just concerned that if we don’t figure out how to improve the infrastructure in that area we’re going to have properties that start developing with the existing infrastructure, the existing absence of a city grid,” Adler said. “And once that starts happening, it’s going to be near impossible, if not impossible, for us to develop the way we want to develop. We’re going to have to solve that problem by taking action this year.”

Council Member Kathie Tovo’s chief concerns centered on the regulating plan for the district and the institutional knowledge that previous staffers brought to the table – primarily city planner Alan Holt, who has since retired, while another staffer has taken a position with the Project Connect office.

“It was my understanding that we were making really good progress on developing the code elements that were going to codify that vision plan and that it got delayed,” Tovo said, noting there was a question several years ago of whether the plan should proceed under the current land code or wait for the rewrite of the Land Development Code, which is currently in litigation.

Housing and Planning Director Rosie Truelove acknowledged that the project area was “in good shape” prior to Holt’s retirement. “We are introducing new staff into this (plan) and so they don’t have the knowledge of the preexisting work,” she said.

As for the Colony Park plan, that project is on a longer timeline for the creation of a financing plan, which staffers are expected to bring to Council in the first quarter of 2022.

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