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Reinventing Waller Creek

The Austin waterway, once a nuisance, aims to transform downtown

What do you do about an oft-flooding creek that happens to cut a serpentine line through the middle of downtown? If you’re the City of Austin, you build a tunnel. If you’re a private-public partnership between the City of Austin and a nonprofit conservancy dedicated to revitalizing that creek, you launch the most ambitious parks project the city has ever seen.

Historically, Waller Creek has been a nuisance for the city, flooding frequently and making a huge swath of downtown Austin largely untenable for developers and small businesses alike. "The creek was actually a sort of … dumping ground," says Melba Whatley, president of Waller Creek Conservancy’s board of directors. "Think of it that way: All the utilities that didn’t have anywhere to end, ended in the creek. Dead bodies were in the creek, brothels were along the creek. It was just, let’s throw them over there in that creek."

Then-Rep. Lyndon B. Johnson called the "shanties" surrounding Waller Creek "hotbeds of crime" in 1938, and a fight over bulldozing parts of the creek to make way for stadium expansions at the University of Texas prompted the Waller Creek Riot in 1969. (UT expanded the stadium anyway.) It’s been more than a sore subject for Austinites; it’s been a hazard to human life, too. Dozens of people drowned in Waller Creek and elsewhere throughout the city during two historic floods in 1915 and 1981. The latter was called the Memorial Day Flood; the creek (and other locations in Central Texas) flooded again over Memorial Day weekend in 2015.

Today, Waller Creek—which flows from North Austin, through the UT campus, along the eastern edge of downtown, and feeds into Lady Bird Lake—is the centerpiece of a massive renovation project that will transform the downtown waterway and surrounding land into, Whatley and her colleagues at Waller Creek Conservancy hope, a recreation destination for all of Austin. What was once a major problem for the city is now an opportunity.

A bridge by the Waller Creek conservancy.

Enter: The private-public partnership. Waller Creek Conservancy is one of several collaborations between the City of Austin and park-specific nonprofit organizations. The model seems to be working, allowing a level of creative financing and undivided attention that the city alone is not capable of pursuing or devoting. The city has relationships with Barton Springs Conservancy, Pease Park Conservancy, Shoal Creek Conservancy, Zilker Botanical Garden Conservancy, Downtown Austin Alliance, and Austin Parks Foundation, to name a few. The partnership with the latter two is wrapping up a capital campaign to redevelop Republic Square, one of three historic downtown squares in need of renovation and redesign.

"You’ve got all of these people that are sort of taking matters into their own hands and thinking about how they can take care of their cherished park or their neighborhood park in a different way," says Terry Jungman Jr., project coordinator at Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department. "Waller Creek Conservancy is definitely the most high-profile and largest financial impact amongst all the conservancies that we’re partnered with."

It’s a unique project: A connected "chain of parks" spanning 37 acres and situated around Waller Creek, safeguarded against future flooding thanks to the new Waller Creek Tunnel. That tunnel—past anticipated deadline and now budgeted at $163 million—is operational, but not yet fully functional. The construction on Waterloo Park, the first to be tackled in the chain, is still ongoing. Everything about the Waller Creek project, from land covered to obstacles encountered to funds needed, is big, in a way that’s almost too apropos of the state’s unofficial "Everything’s bigger in Texas" motto. The conservancy is in the quiet phase of its projected $220 million capital campaign, while the city has contributed $43 million to date.

"In hindsight I might’ve been terrified," says Whatley of the conservancy’s beginnings and her role as one of its three founding members. "As it was, I was just ignorant, not knowing the challenges and not knowing the complexity of how a city reimagines a third of its downtown."

The Waller Creek project isn’t just a long overdue facelift; it’s closer to a brand new face for downtown from the creek up. Ripple effects are expected, both by the conservancy and city officials, to reach far and wide. But can a new park really transform a whole city?

A city park has a very different function from a suburban park or a rural park. The need for city parks—green, open spaces to break up stretches of gray buildings—can feel most pressing for those living in a major metropolis. Whatley talks about the need for "pauses" in an urban setting, something that planned patches of nature can provide. But parks are not just meant to invite rest; they can be dynamic, too.

"The reason cities are so exciting is because they provide opportunities for diverse communities to rub up against one another and connect with one another, and new things come out of those connections and those collisions," says Peter Mullan, Waller Creek Conservancy’s CEO. "And parks are in many ways the physical embodiment of that urban opportunity. [They] provide places where people can come together, either to connect with members of their community, or to connect with things they might not be familiar with from other aspects of the city."

To that point, the designs for Waller Creek’s five major parks center on five different themes. Waller Delta and Pontoon Bridge will hinge on "new connectivity." Palm Park will provide "shaded respite." The Narrows will exemplify "intensified urbanity," while The Refuge will offer an "immersive experience." Waterloo Park will be a "vibrant gathering space."

Mullan gets cities. His job before accepting his post at Waller Creek was executive vice president at Friends of the High Line, New York’s similarly ambitious and unique parks project, which he oversaw from start to finish. Like Waller Creek, New York had never attempted a public park quite like the High Line. "But there was more experience in New York with those kinds of urban, intensively designed spaces," says Mullan, "like Bryant Park and the Battery, and Central Park even."

Austin is, of course, not New York. "Austin is not, generally, a walking city," says Gullivar Shepard, project leader for Waller Creek at New York-based landscape architecture firm Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, which also oversaw Brooklyn Bridge Park’s design, among others. "It’s pretty sprawled-out overall." The challenge of that sprawl was one of the "longitudinal issues," as Shepard puts it, that drew him to the project. Austin does possess the same "footprint" as New York, he adds—both cities constitute 300 square miles of jurisdiction, but Shepard says that Austin is just one-tenth as dense. Driving is an everyday reality in Austin, and traffic (as you’ve probably heard) is a nightmare. Because despite Austin’s comparatively small ratio of bodies to land, the city is changing.

In 2015, the Austin metro area saw its population hit 2 million—with a 37.7% increase since 2005 and a projected population doubling predicted by 2040—and boasted the "second-fastest-growing economy" in the U.S. With that rapid growth, however, comes substantial growing pains.

"We are just learning to live as urbanists here in Austin," says Whatley, who’s lived here for 35 years. "We’re still a young city, and we have immaturities all over the place, and we have huge issues."

Transportation/traffic is one, and probably the first words out of the mouths of most longtime residents asked about the changes. Gentrification is a major concern. The state of our city’s parks is yet another.

I first heard about the Waller Creek project when I moved to Austin in 2015 (adding to that newcomer strain) and became friends with John Rigdon, the director of planning and design at the conservancy. It was John who told me that while Austin is rich in its supply of neighborhood parks that serve surrounding residents, more needs to be done to bridge inherent gaps and unify disparate communities. Austin’s parks, he adds, should function as regional attractions with year-round reasons for visiting, "support[ing] the diverse uses of an entire community and region."

It turns out that most everyone on the front lines of urban planning and park stewardship in Austin shares this sentiment: Our parks are not serving the most people possible, in the most interconnected way possible.

There is an active park culture in Austin, to be fair. Zilker Park draws people from throughout the city and beyond for Austin City Limits Music Festival and other events, and Barton Springs is a natural pool that’s never not swarming in the summer, open in the winter, and forever 68 degrees. So what else do Austin’s parks need?

For starters, Austin’s parks are underfunded. "They have been forever," says Colin Wallis, executive director of Austin Parks Foundation. "And the way that really manifests itself is we really don’t invest the kind of dollars as a city that you need to invest to have a really solid park system." Wallis adds that he doesn’t think any of Austin’s parks are fulfilling their potential as parks in an urban space, citing the city’s ranking on the Trust for Public Land’s ParkScore, which grades the park systems of the top 100 cities in the country. This year, Austin is 47th.

Explains Wallis, "We rank in the top five in regards to how much park land we have"—27,248 acres—"and we rank in the bottom five with how we spend on it." Wallis says that the parks department budget is about $90 million, which he adds is barely enough to complete the bare minimum of service, like janitorial needs and landscape work, let alone address crumbling infrastructure and swimming pools past their prime. "We’d have to double that budget to really move the needle," says Wallis, "and we’re not going to double the parks department budget any time soon."

Austin has a long history of not appropriately funding its parks, but the city’s rapid growth over recent years has compounded the problem. "The pace for redevelopment is not keeping up with the rate of population increase right now," says PARD’s Jungman. "You have this unprecedented amount of people moving into the city of Austin. And we are not able to acquire land, and then develop land, to fit those gaps where you’re seeing influxes of people moving into high-rise residential condos and apartments and things like that."

One piece of the Trust for Public Land’s ParkScore score is "access based on the percentage of the population living within a ten-minute (half-mile) walk of a public park." Says Jungman, "That’s a metric that we are currently behind on, and trying to catch up."

The creek running through a neighborhood covered with trees.

Austin is also in danger of losing parks over lack of funds to the throngs of real estate developers profiting off the city’s population boom. There’s a big community fight underway between the developer who bought the Grove at Shoal Creek (land that once belonged to the state, and that the city couldn’t afford to buy) and the neighborhood that the Grove serves—could other Austin parks be next?

"It’s incredibly difficult to lose park land," says Jungman, though he adds that the graver issue is continuing to lose park quality over time. "We just can’t redevelop or reinvest in existing park land fast enough."

The good news is that Austin loves its parks. "If you live in Austin it doesn’t take long to realize people use our parks," says Wallis. But that’s also the bad news. "They are quite literally loved to death."

Austin’s fanaticism about using its green space was one of the things that surprised Mullan, Waller Creek’s CEO, when he first arrived here. "Number one, people [in Austin] love to be outdoors, in spite of some challenging conditions certain times of the year." The Butler Trail, for instance, sees 1.5 million visits a year along its 10-mile route around Lady Bird Lake. And it’s not unusual for Austin temperatures to reach 100 degrees in the summer, nor for people to jog and bike and hike in 100-degree summer weather.

The other bit that Mullan’s learned about Austin might be the most streamlined explanation of why Austin’s parks need to function better, and why Austin is the perfect city for efforts to improve them. Says Mullan, "I have never been in a community where people like to socialize so much. There really is this openness to other people." Could Austin be perfectly suited for the connected park chain of Waller Creek’s vision? Could the in-progress public space running 37 acres up downtown be the recipe for knitting together a sprawled-out, "new" city in its urban infancy? And could the project spur other park advocates in Austin to reimagine "shaded respites" of "intensified urbanity" and "new connectivity," too?

Waiting on the city to expand its Parks and Recreation budget to improve Austin’s parks to such an extent may be a non-starter. Austin’s parks funding draws from the General Fund, placing public spaces in direct competition with other public services, like EMS, fire, and housing. PARD’s Jungman adds that there are 240 individual park parcels throughout the city, all of which require care, and deferred maintenance needs that stretch back 20 years. "The appetite of council and budget to be able to provide significant operations and maintenance dollars to maintain a high level of service citywide is just unreasonable based on the amount of resources that are available. We’ve been sort of fighting this fight for any number of years and have only made small—not insignificant, but small—steps towards trying to fix that problem."

The creek running under a stone bridge.

If there were ever a time for private-public partnerships to rise up and take action, it’s now.

"I think we’ve been resting on our laurels here for quite a while, and it’s been great being at the top of all those lists," says Whatley, referring to the number of national rankings that place Austin among the best places to live. Austin is, in many ways, an oasis of tolerance, both in Texas and in the South, and a welcome alternative to expensive cities with bleak weather, like New York and San Francisco. Who can blame the approximately—according to Austin demographer Ryan Robinson—105 people who flock here a day? "But we have got to reinvest in Austin’s karma," adds Whatley. "We’ve got to step up to the plate here."

Waller Creek, as it stands now, is somewhat invisible in the city. It’s not yet a destination that drives foot traffic. No one will tell you, "Hey, I’ll meet you at the creek," unless both parties work for either the conservancy or the city. Once its makeover is complete, though, it will be a walkable city center, drawing land developers and businesses and connecting neighbors along the creek with one another.

"When it’s finished, you’ll be able to walk out of the Fairmont Hotel on the waterfront and walk to a football game [at UT] and back," says Whatley. "Well, how great is that? But that wouldn’t even have happened if it wasn’t for us, because the trail [isn’t] contiguous. We have had to struggle with a lot of forces to try to make this thing happen."

The newness of the endeavor presents huge logistical challenges. "There really isn’t a precedent for what it is, and everybody’s trying to figure it out," says CEO Mullan. "Is it like the River Walk in San Antonio? Is it like the Shoal Creek Trail? What’s it like?"

There really isn’t an easy comparison. And that’s both exciting and daunting.

"The core thing about Waller Creek is it’s this opportunity at every block to invent what a park is," agrees design project lead Shepard. But from a design perspective there’s a lot to figure out, and a wide range of moving parts. Explains Shepard, "It is, just to be blunt, the biggest pain in the ass because it is a 60- to 100-foot-wide cross section that has some of the most complicated utilities, jurisdictions, developer interactions, and city project interactions, where often the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. So we sort of inherit a little bit of everyone’s project and use that as a sort of medium on which to depart."

Shepard defines Waller Creek as "intensely urban"—hand-in-hand with Mullan’s "intensively designed" descriptor—because of its verticality, referring to the bridges and varying levels incorporated into the design to accommodate downtown functionality. "You have to play with all the semantics of what’s under the bridge," he says. "Usually we think not good things. So there’s a really big challenge there."

The scope of the project is intriguing to the public, but it’s also something of a community curiosity. Says Mullan, "That’s the one question we get is, ‘How are you going to get this done?’ Because it’s so big." Mullan adds that Austin has struggled with big projects, citing the failure of a light-rail proposal in 2014 and differing opinions about the mayor’s $720 million Mobility Bond, a ballot measure that passed in this election. "They just reflect how this is a city that’s still figuring out what it means to be a bigger city. And part of that is about building the confidence to recognize that we can do these big projects."

Fundraising, in turn, is a hurdle. There are many generous people in Austin, says Mullan, but the city lacks the breadth of organized philanthropic institutions influential in "older" cities like Dallas and his home city of New York.

Plus, there are two key thematic challenges for Waller Creek Conservancy, and for the city, existing businesses, and new businesses, too. The first is the problem PARD’s Jungman mentioned, only on an even bigger scale: How does Austin keep pace with its growth by building infrastructure in all areas to support that growth?

"But there’s another layer," adds Mullan. "How does Austin grow up and not sell its soul in the process?" The city’s now-retro "Keep Austin Weird" tagline is almost irrelevant. Commercial success means, by definition, that much of the city has gone commercial. Weird Austin might not necessarily be dead, but it’s on life support. Perhaps nothing points to its sorry state more than the financial troubles of the Red River Cultural District, long the nucleus of the self-named "Live Music Capital of the World"’s music scene. Besides storied venues shuttering due to rising rents, many musicians can no longer afford to live in Austin due to the rising cost of living.

Waller Creek Conservancy sees the Red River Cultural District as its unofficial partner, says Mullan. The idea is that in drawing more people downtown to Waller Creek’s parks, more people will have a reason to stick around and see a concert at one of those venues in trouble. And if the conservancy can also aid Austin’s struggling music scene with new opportunities, so much the better. The plans for an amphitheater at Waterloo Park specify that the band shell will be used not only for major national headliners, but for local bands and artists, too.

But even more than losing sight of its cultural identity in relation to music, Austin is losing sight of its cultural identity in relation to diversity. How does a city grow and prosper, erecting multi-million-dollar condos and posh hotels, without displacing its lower-income residents—namely, its black and brown population?

This isn’t a new issue. Austin’s gentrification long predated its recent economic surge.

"We didn’t separate off because of growth," says Whatley. "We built a great big barrier between the white community and the black and brown community." That barrier is I-35, the usually congested highway that runs through Austin, separating east from west. It opened in 1962. As the Austin American-Statesman put it in its three-part series chronicling Austin’s racial divide, "The vast majority of Austin’s African-American and Hispanic populations remain east of I-35. But Austin’s divisions run deeper than where its residents live. The policies that spawned a geographic divide set the stage for a sharp economic divide as well."

Tackling gentrification has been a hurdle for Waller Creek Conservancy since its founding in 2010. "Encourage connectivity" has long been a part of its mission statement, not just with nature, but person-to-person. Yet the conservancy knows that its efforts to invest capital in the downtown area, while aiming to bring major amenities to the public, inadvertently compound the problem.

"This is a national problem, too," says Mullan. "The reinvestment in cities has led to this incredible flourishing of cities, but I think it’s also exacerbated the income inequality issues in those cities." Adjacency to green space, he notes, drives development dollars. "This is the balancing act that everyone is trying to figure out how to manage. And the investments of parks and open space contribute to that because we, in some ways, enhance property value and do all the things that are part of the fuel that’s driving this investment in cities. So it’s a real issue."

Programmatic and outreach efforts, adds Mullan, will help counteract the unintended downside of those investments. The people behind the Waller Creek project are insistent about that: The only way the parks can be considered a triumph is if they provide access to green space for people from every neighborhood within the city limits (and, ideally, beyond).

The conservancy is a supporter of Reconnect Austin and the Texas Department of Transportation’s lowered I-35 initiative, as are Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department and Mayor Steve Adler. The plan would submerge main highway lanes below ground level for downtown streets running east to west, thereby opening pedestrian and roadway access above ground for otherwise isolated East Austin. And with that access will come new opportunity for public space and park land. It’s no wonder, then, that Waller Creek Conservancy considers the potentially lowered I-35 an extension of the Waller Creek chain of parks.

"One of the things I feel that this project must do is create the place where all members of Austin come and feel at home," says Whatley. "Different ethnic groups use parks differently. And we are in the process of thinking about that and how we are going to be responsive so that there is space for all." Whatley adds that some communities use public green spaces regularly for birthday celebrations and family reunions, while others use parks for physical activities. Others yet seek out parks to learn more about nature, and all groups take advantage of parks when it comes to giving kids a place to play. "This is not a separation idea, but a uniting idea: Room for all groups to do everything."

Trees next to the creek.

This is what John Rigdon means when he says Waller Creek must be a "community living room" for the city. "The more Austinites are together playing, talking, recreating, etc.," he says, "the better we will be at addressing some of the structural issues facing our explosive growth."

The hope, through all of this, is that there’s a way to keep Austin’s true identity intact—the openness, the idiosyncrasies, the heterogeneity—-while allowing that identity to evolve.

In that way, the challenges of the Waller Creek project yield opportunities for innovation and—let’s just say it—weirdness.

There are a lot of things that energize Gullivar Shepard about Waller Creek. He lists a number of conundrums, headaches, and roadblocks—like most people whose love for their jobs is clear as a clean creek, those conundrums and headaches and roadblocks galvanized Shepard and his team. MVVA—and architecture firm Thomas Phifer and Partners—entered the conservancy’s international design competition in 2011 and beat out 30 other teams from all over the world to tackle the city’s flood-happy problem child.

Of the conundrums, perhaps the most exciting to Shepard is the opportunity to create two new ecosystems within Waller Creek from next to nothing: a biological ecosystem in the traditional sense, and an ecosystem in terms of community.

"This is a very radical flood control measure," says Shepard of the Waller Creek Tunnel Project. His description of the large concrete structure at the top of the tunnel moves seamlessly from a comparison to a drain in your kitchen sink (only this drain is 70 feet below the earth’s surface) to a catcher’s mitt that will collect floodwater. In times of flood, the apparatus will push the floodwater to Lady Bird Lake. At all other times, it will draw water from the lake, through the tunnel, and up into the creek for one and a half miles. All that infrastructure will regulate the water flow in Waller Creek, says the conservancy, and plant and animal life, sustained by stable creek flow, will inhabit the creek like never before. As Whatley explains, "We’re creating a natural artificial creek. It’s the only way I know to describe it."

The tunnel is a practical measure, but according to Shepard, it has exciting ramifications in its "radical interruption of natural flow and hydrology."

"Essentially, Austin is now a curator of ... a mile and a half of nature through downtown Austin," says Shepard. "And that is a huge part of it, aside from all the public space ambitions. This is how a city owns a piece of nature—owns, manages, and prides itself on—because the realization is that these natural systems can be more resilient and more effective than sort of man-made solutions to infrastructure."

The aim, in a sense, is for Waller Creek to create life.

Waller Creek, detail of the creek.

It’s also meant to foster human life, as we know from Waller Creek’s mission to "encourage connectivity." Here, Shepard looks to nature again. "Ecological niches are an analogy to the type of public space we’re looking to make," he says, drawing on the theory of different organisms occupying different places and roles in nature. There’s an opportunity, he says, in offering options through design. Different people will favor different areas of the park, and different people will use different areas on different days. Some areas will be lawns backing into the creek. Others will be walkable suspension bridges over the creek. There will be short cliffs, and throughlines to restaurants and retail.

"We’re laying back the edges and making these choreographed sort of spatial arrangements," says Shepard. "Yes, stepping down, sliding down, a whole collection of ideas about how you perceive the lower space. And to all, it’s very sensitive towards safety, to a sense of being invited and a curiosity to see, to be entertained a little bit, and having access to the water in some places." The water, he adds, will be clean, since it will be drawn from the lake, as opposed to the bacteria-laden water that’s filled the stagnant creek until now.

All of this is in service, says Shepard, of the wide array of people that live in Austin.

"The bizarrely eclectic is a great opportunity. That invention that drew us to the project to make all sorts of varying types of solutions to problems and connectivity, [and] to make lots of different scales of spaces—sunny, shaded, inside, outdoors, playground stuff, play environments, nature play—this incredibly rich pageant of scales and invented spaces to allow just about anyone to find their sort of happy place in the park, if you will."

The opening of Waller Creek’s first park, Waterloo, is projected for late 2018. The due dates for the other parks are TBD. A lot depends on fundraising efforts, which are ongoing.

Does the conservancy look ahead to the day it can finally celebrate this ambitious project’s completion?

"My husband said to me one day a couple of years ago, ‘Are you still going to be working on Waller Creek when you’re 90?’" muses Whatley. "And I said, ‘Do you have a problem with that?’ Because I’m pretty sure I’m still going to be working on it at 90. ... I’m fond of saying I want the whole damn thing done in my lifetime."

Mullan has a similar attitude. But that there’s no clear end in sight doesn’t mean that he and his team are pessimistic about being able to accomplish this massive undertaking. Rather, he’s fully aware that there will always be more to do. "I hope there isn’t a point where we say, ‘Oh, done, we can close up shop.’ Because I don’t think that’s the way this is going to work. I think this is going to be a living, breathing place that’s going to go on in perpetuity, and that’s part of what’s going to make it fresh and exciting for generations."

Editor: Sara Polsky


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