Downtown’s Waller Creek oasis begins with Waterloo Park improvements

A chain of parks and trails more than five years in the making will break ground Wednesday on its first phase, with an ultimate goal of restoring Waller Creek, connecting Central and South Austin trail systems and lining downtown with green space.

PHOTOS: Waller Creek improvements, additions set to begin

The Waller Creek project will run from Waterloo Park, near Trinity and 12th streets down to where the creek runs into Lady Bird Lake, near Red River Street, creating or renovating 37 acres of public park space following the creek for about a mile and a half. The nonprofit Waller Creek Conservancy is spearheading the effort, using a combination of its own fundraising and public dollars.

Eventually, plans call for a floating pedestrian bridge over Lady Bird Lake, a revamped Palm Park and, at some point yet to be determined, demolition of the Austin Police Department building for parkland and new development.

But the first step is a $64 million rebuild of Waterloo Park that conservancy officials hope to finish by the end of 2019. That includes $15 million from the city, $1 million from a state grant, $27 million the conservancy has raised and $21 million that it hasn’t yet raised.

The improvements at Waterloo will include a new amphitheater, a large lawn, winding walking trails and new gardens and play spaces built into the hillsides and corners of the 11-acre park.

“Each of these spaces has a distinct character,” conservancy CEO Peter Mullan said. “In many ways Waterloo Park is the microcosm of the entire project,”

The Waller Creek Tunnel has been under construction on the southern side of Waterloo Park since 2011. To the public, the tunnel is largely known as a flood control mechanism beset by delays, whose cost has ballooned from $25 million when voters first approved it in 1998, to $150 million when officials learned in 2014 the design of an intake building would block a protected Capitol view, to $163.1 million when design flaws required more money last year.

RELATED: Contrary to plans, Waller Creek Tunnel operating unfinished for months

But that infrastructure project will allow the city and conservancy to restore the creek with less fear of flooding, changing concrete walls along the creek to grassy embankments and access points. The tunnel, which is not yet complete but operating under interim conditions, will also suck water up from Lady Bird Lake to keep the creek flowing even in times of drought.

“Nobody likes to talk about the tunnel because it’s only bad news,” Mullan said. “But, the reality is, the tunnel is making all of this possible.”

The project’s second phase will be the southernmost section, where plans call for reviving the green space along the creek below Fourth Street and expanding Palm Park, possibly to include use of the Palm School as a community area.

Last, and most complicated, will be the central section, which depends on moving and knocking down the police building. There, plans call for building a large park with a creek-level “refuge” space, edged with new development.

“Our goal is to design this for Austinites and to make this as authentically Austin as possible,” Mullan said. “That’s what will make it the most interesting and valuable asset for visitors too, because that’s what visitors want to do: experience Austin.”

City officials are discussing whether to extend the time period of a tax increment finance zone that supports the Waller Creek Tunnel, to put revenue toward the park system. Such zones freeze tax revenue to the city’s general budget within a given area and put tax revenue above that into a fund to be spent on improvements within the area.

RELATED: Adler pitches solution to ‘downtown puzzle’

Mayor Steve Adler has named the Waller Creek project as part of his “downtown puzzle” plan, which links expansion of the Austin Convention Center to the creation of a downtown tourism public improvement district that could providing money for, among other things, homeless initiatives.

The Waller Creek project and its tax zone have no link to either the convention center or the proposed public improvement district, and do not depend on those projects. Rather, Adler said he sees them as geographically relevant to one another.

“It’s related only because it’s so much activity happening in the same general area,” Adler said, noting that the park system also has an interest in making sure homeless people are served well.

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