Officials say they hope project unites residents

Progress continues on the Waller Creek project, with construction on the Waller Creek Tunnel more than halfway complete and a final design chosen for surface development.

Officials said they hope the project, which affects 28 acres of downtown land, or 11 percent of downtown, will unite the entire community.

“I think there’s this idea that this is for downtown. This is for everybody,” said Stephanie McDonald, executive director of the Waller Creek Conservancy, which was formed in 2010 by local business and philanthropic leaders to oversee the design and construction of the surface of Waller Creek. “In other cities, these signature parks really attract people throughout the community, and that’s what we intend to do. We intend to give residents something extraordinary with their help.”

Waller Creek tunnel

McDonald said flooding is a key issue for Waller Creek because it collects runoff from I-35 and from an area that extends from Highland Mall to Lady Bird Lake.

“The tunnel is integral to this project,” she said. “Without the tunnel, we wouldn’t be in this place because anything we did to the surface would be kind of washed out with the next big flood.”

The City of Austin began construction on the tunnel about 18 months ago and is about 60 percent complete. It will be 5,600 feet long, buried about 67 feet underground, and will extend from Waterloo Park down to Lady Bird Lake, near the Waller Creek Boathouse.

Camille Jobe, president of the Austin Rowing Club, which manages the boathouse, said the facility cost about $3.5 million and was one of the first steps in the tunnel’s construction.

The tunnel will have three water entry points along its course. The shafts will be able to accommodate a combined maximum of about 9,750 cubic feet per second of water during a flood event. According to the December 2008 Waller Creek Watershed Restudy, peak flow rate during a 100-year flood is 8,247 cubic feet per second.

Mayor pro tem Sheryl Cole said the tunnel also will keep the creek flowing continuously. Water will be pumped up into the creek from the lake, contributing to the area’s aesthetic and water quality.

Officials said that when the tunnel is complete, about 1 million square feet of land will have been removed from the flood plain. The $146.7 million tunnel project is expected to be finished in late 2014.

Creek history

In 1839, Judge Edwin Waller chose the town of Waterloo, located between what are now Waller and Shoal creeks, as the capital of the new Republic of Texas.

The judge had been selected by Texas President Mirabeau B. Lamar to supervise the survey and sale of lots as well as the construction of public buildings. One of the surveyors named Waller Creek after the judge.

“The creek was very much an integral part in the situation of Austin, and I think it’s really important that it’s not something that just meanders through a nascent neighborhood,” McDonald said. “This was something that was really important.”

In the May 1998 special election, Austin voters approved a $25 million bond for the Waller Creek Tunnel project through a 2 percent increase to the hotel/motel occupancy tax.

Estimated costs of the tunnel project were found to greatly exceed the bond amount, so to finish funding the project, a Tax Increment Financing district was created in 2007 that lasts until 2027.

As part of the agreement between the City of Austin and Travis County, the city contributes 100 percent of the increase in property values for the area along Waller Creek to the project. The county contributes 50 percent of the increase in property values for the area along the creek back to the project.

“[Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole] and I understood this to be about more than just a flood control tunnel,” she said. “That this was really about park space, and this was really about great public spaces and economic development. Parks done well are really economic development drivers.”

Cole said she had been interested in the project since first being elected to Austin City Council in 2006. She said she has been a consistent proponent of the project.

“A creek in the middle of the city is just an incredible asset,” Cole said. “To have that kind of waterway in downtown was a major, underutilized [resource].”

Design, project future

Austin City Council approved the final design and team Michael Van Valkenburgh and Thomas Phifer & Partners on Oct. 20 after a five-person jury made its final selection from about 31 submissions.

“We’re honored to be selected,” said Michael Van Valkenburgh, principal landscape architect for the firm. “I think all of us that have come together on this project have been really excited about getting to know Austin and want to make something that’s great for the city.”

Van Valkenburgh said the team drew on the “spirit of Austin” to design a public park that matched the city and gave residents and visitors safe spaces to congregate.

“I think that creative people have a little more playfulness than the rest of the world, so we tried to bring in some of the playfulness in an adult way,” he said, describing a pontoon bridge that will move to extend across Lady Bird Lake and suspension bridges at the mouth of the creek.

The conservancy is supporting the design project through various funding sources. Though conservancy officials do not have a draft budget or timeline for the project, they are working with the design team and said they expect to have details finalized by June.


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