Today’s vote by the Austin City Council marks a significant milestone for the Waller Creek Conservancy (WCC) and the development of Waller Creek Park. The Council approved an amendment to the Waller Creek Tax Increment Financing (TIF; also referred to as the Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone or TIRZ), dedicating approximately $110 million in new public funding for this transformative project.
“Today’s Council vote represents an extraordinary step forward in our effort to create a new public greenspace that will bring the entire Austin community together. We now have a clear path toward the completion of the Waller Creek Park project,” said WCC CEO Peter Mullan. “There is much work to be done, of course, but we now have the ability to make the vision for Waller Creek a reality.”
The ambitious project, which stretches from Lady Bird Lake to 15th Street, includes 35 acres of new and redeveloped parkland, more than three miles of pedestrian and bicycle trails, and the ecological restoration of lower Waller Creek. Waller Creek Park is being implemented through an innovative public-private partnership between the City of Austin and WCC, a non-profit organization founded in 2010.
Melba Whatley, President of the WCC Board of Directors, remarked, “By its affirmative vote today, the City Council made the vision of Waller Creek a reality. It represents a triumph of the fearless and persistent pursuit of excellence and constitutes an immeasurable gift to this city. We are deeply grateful to this Council, its predecessors, the many citizen volunteers and donors and the staffs of the Conservancy and the City whose support made this unforgettable moment possible.”
With the total cost of the capital project estimated at $246 million, this TIF funding plus other public sources equal $152 million in public investment. The City of Austin has asked Waller Creek Conservancy (WCC) to raise the remaining $94 million through philanthropy and other private contributions. To date, WCC has raised approximately $46 million toward that goal. As of today’s Council vote, 80 percent of funding has been raised for Waller Creek Park.
“Waller Creek Conservancy has embarked on one of the largest and most ambitious public open space projects in the history of Austin. While we have been tremendously successful to date, we still need to raise $48 million to achieve our goals and meet and beat the challenge put before us today by the City Council,” said Gary Farmer, co-chair of the Waller Creek Capital Campaign.
The project is being approached in phases with the TIF funding allocated accordingly based on WCC fundraising milestones. The first phase, Waterloo Park, is currently under construction and is expected to open in 2020. Combined with ongoing philanthropic efforts, this significant public investment ensures all phases of the park project could be completed by the end of 2025.
In addition to its value as a public amenity, Waller Creek Park will also be an economic driver for the city. Data collected from comparable urban parks projects nationally demonstrate a return on capital costs ranging anywhere from 10:1 to 40:1.
“If nature lies at the center of human existence, Waller Creek Park promises to take all who visit on a beautiful journey,” said Tom Meredith, Chair of the WCC Board of Directors. Continuing, “Waller Creek Park will rapidly become one of the most visited and well-used attractions in Central Texas; connecting communities east and west, and north and south, regardless of age, ethnicity or religion. It is that belief which inspired me to engage in such a pleasing responsibility nearly eight years ago. I am especially grateful for all who have supported such a truly transformative project.”
The Waller Creek TIF was established in 2007 to fund the construction of the Waller Creek Flood Control Tunnel. Today’s Council action means parks and other surface-level improvements are also approved uses for funds generated within the TIF district; it also extends the term of the TIF from 2028 to 2041. As a public financing tool, a TIF captures the incremental growth in new property tax revenues within a given TIF district. It does not create an additional assessment on taxpayers or increase tax rates, nor does it impact the City’s bonding capacity for other priority projects.
In addition to raising the funds necessary to complete the project, Waller Creek Conservancy has committed to raise funds associated with operations and maintenance of the parks in the future, a commitment of over $100 million from 2020 to 2041.