Carolyn Perez

Construction workers work on the city of Austin’s Waller Creek Tunnel Project on Wednesday afternoon. The projects goal is to redirect water flow so some areas of downtown would be at less risk of floods.

Photo Credit: Shelby Tauber | Daily Texan Staff

For years, business owners avoided building in some parts of downtown — the chance the area would flood made the decision too economically risky. If the City of Austin’s Waller Creek Tunnel Project is successful, 28 acres of downtown will be reclaimed to allow for area redevelopment.

Waller Creek begins north of the University and runs south through downtown and into Lady Bird Lake. The project’s goal is to redirect water flow away from a 100-year floodplain, a low-lying area near a river which is subject to flooding. 

According to Carolyn Perez, Austin Public Works Department communications manager, the project will allow for economic redevelopment of the area.

“It will provide flood protection and make it possible to revitalize parts of downtown that have been stagnant for years,” Perez said.

Perez said area residents have tried to add improvements such as park benches to the creek area, but their efforts were unsuccessful.

“There is an ever-present fear of floodwater,” Perez said. “If you go down to that part of the creek, you can actually see places where people have tried to make improvements, but they were washed away with the next flood.”

Phillip Fry is co-editor of “Austin’s Waller Creek,” a book about the history and vision of Waller Creek that will be published later this year. Fry said he is concerned that real estate in the area will become so expensive that only high-rises or multiple-use buildings will be able to afford building there.

“I think there will be positive things, but I’m starting to think that there will be many changes that some of the old-timers will regret — like the [elimination of the] music scene from 9th Street down to the river,” Fry said. “Commercial development will really have an impact there unless they preserve [the area].”

Perez said the process of lining the 5,600-foot tunnel with concrete is about 40 percent completed and said the tunnel will be fully operational by the end of 2014. According to Perez, the overall project costs $146.5 million — including land acquisition, engineering and project management — and is funded through the Waller Creek Tax Increment Financing Zone. The flood control tunnel construction, a major component of the project, will cost $106 million.

The Waller Creek Conservancy is implementing a design that will rehabilitate the creek ecology and revitalize area parks. Stephanie McDonald, Waller Creek Conservancy executive director, said the Conservancy will focus on areas between 15th Street and Lady Bird Lake, including the floodplain that the tunnel project is reclaiming. 

“Within walking distance of UT, you’ll have a repurposed Waterloo Park and Symphony Square,” Fry said. “It will be accessible by bike-and-hike and even possibly by rail.”

An underground tunnel project designed to reduce Waller Creek flooding could lead to improved bike paths between UT and downtown and a river walk, said city officials.

The Waller Creek Tunnel Project is a large, mile-long storm tunnel being built 70 feet under the last mile of Waller Creek, stretching from Waterloo Park to Lady Bird Lake. The tunnel project would regulate flood water in the mile stretch of Waller Creek between 12th and Red River streets. The city broke ground on the project on April 8.

When the tunnel project is finished, the city will begin to work to improve pedestrian bike lanes around and between Lady Bird Lake, UT and downtown, said public works department spokeswoman Carolyn Perez.

“What has to happen first is getting the flooding under control,” she said. “After that, improving those lanes is one of the goals that the city has.”

Step one of the plan is building the tunnel itself and step two, which is much farther down the road, is building a river walk downtown, Perez said.

“I think it’s important to differentiate,” she said. “A lot of people think we’re just turning downtown into a river walk, and that’s something that will happen in the future, but we’re not building one right now. And it’s not going to be a carbon copy of the one in San Antonio, it’s going to be very uniquely Austin.”

The plan would primarily affect the area south of 15th Street, but the project would increase connectivity to major destinations on campus, such as the Erwin Center and Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, said architect Jim Robertson, manager of the Urban Design division of the Planning and Development Review Department.

“Our hope is that the campus and major destinations within the campus would become more closely connected and better accessible to and from the Waller Creek improvements at Waterloo Park and South Austin,” he said.

While the tunnel will mostly affect Eastern downtown, it would still positively impact pedestrian and bike travel between downtown and campus along with other areas of the city, Robertson said.
“Our hope is that the benefits will extend beyond just that area,” he said. “The community’s vision is of a true ‘destination’ type experience that would be of benefit to not only the broad Austin community but also an attraction for visitors.”

Many problems currently face bikers riding downtown from UT’s campus, including streetlights that favor motorists and unfriendly drivers, said radio-television-film sophomore Demi Adejuyigbe who frequently bikes downtown.

“I’d love better bike lanes,” he said. “The bike lanes right now aren’t terrible but they could use some renovation and improvement. Better bike lanes would definitely be good to have.”