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Committee makes progress on Waller Creek project

Friday, October 17, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

Jean Mather may finally get her wish to see Austin create an urban waterway overlay. Unfortunately, it will just have to happen about 30 years later than the long-time commissioner and parks supporter expected.


The Waller Creek Citizens Advisory Committee met last night to hear updates on both the tunnel project and the master plan update. If the committee’s recommendations meet with Council approval, it’s likely to put more on the plate of the ROMA Design Group, which now carries two major downtown contracts: the downtown master plan and the creation of a strategic plan for above-ground development on Waller Creek on the east side of downtown.


Mather has been stumping hard for an urban waterfront overlay, not unlike the Town Lake waterfront overlay. The work along the creek bank, Mather said, would be an ideal time to revisit regulations for the waterfront overlay.


The first time such an idea was proposed was 1976, Mather said. Now, as the city considers the creek bank again, ROMA should take the time to include some additional regulations in the area’s future land use map, or FLUM.


At last night’s meeting, Urban Design Officer Jim Robertson – joined by liaison Tonya Swartzendruber and engineer Gary Jackson – outlined additions to the scope of service on the Waller Creek master plan, which will be a two-year planning project designed to dovetail with the end of tunnel construction.


ROMA’s plan will consist of two major components of work. The first is a creek corridor concept plan, which would include a plan for pedestrian and public access, as well as physical improvements to the current creek bank. The second component is a district concept plan, which would encompass the land use and regulating concepts within the district, as well as development standards and transportation.


The combination of the two – with the commission’s input – would create the “personality” of Waller Creek in a way that would encourage redevelopment.


Creating a waterfront overlay would require a code amendment to create an overlay district, Robertson said. The commission could make its wishes known through the ROMA plan and, from that, Council could choose to create an ordinance, Robertson said. No one on the committee raised serious objections to Mather’s proposal, and Mather acknowledged the commission could not vote on the measure since it was not posted for action. The idea likely will return at a future commission meeting.


One chief concern of the creek corridor plan – an issue raised by the biking and park community on a number of occasions in earlier commission meetings – is the creation of master pedestrian and open space plan. Bike riders, in particular, have complained erosion and incomplete planning have left sidewalk gaps in the pathway along Waller Creek. The city also wants to use open space along the pathway more strategically to create various amenities.


The city could propose strategies beyond simply closing the gaps in the pathway, Robertson said. Taking a page from the Riverwalk in San Antonio, Robertson said Austin might be interested in two pathways – one for through traffic for cyclists on the way to work and a second multipurpose path with ramps and linkages to Waller Creek to encourage foot traffic.


“We want to determine where there will be ramps, where there will be linkages, just like they do on the San Antonio River,” Robertson said. “We don’t believe we can leave it to chance… We feel quite strongly that among the deliverables for the master plan ought to be plan to establish a linear circuit along the creek.”


That plan will require a fairly detailed survey of the creek line, looking at the current ownership along the creek bed. A plan for a circuit also would include where to place ramps, stairs and bridges, Robertson said.


Dave Anderson, chair of the Environmental Board, just returned from the chamber’s visit to Vancouver. One of Anderson’s takeaways form the trip was a commitment by the local river authority to a master plan that would encompass both human elements and environmental concerns. Waller Creek is an ecosystem – albeit an urban ecosystem – that needs protection in the same way as open space. 


Robertson said the ecological impact of the project was certainly an element that ROMA could deal with in its master plan of the creek. Ted Siff also suggested better utilization of both sides of the creek bed. Robertson said the concerns related by the committee likely would be loaded into the creek corridor concept plan.


At the same time, Robertson said, it is important to make sure the district concept plan would not take a back seat the creek corridor concept plan. The commission is loaded with people – parks supporters and various commission members – who do have a strong environmental leaning.

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