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Competing firms give peek at concepts for Waller Creek project

Tuesday, May 22, 2012 by Kimberly Reeves

As work on the Waller Creek tunnel progresses, interest turned to the plans for landscaping above the tunnel as the Waller Creek Conservancy introduced the four design teams competing to create a new vision for the urban waterway.


The decade-long project looks closer to reality, though significant questions remain for how to fund the aboveground improvements. On Saturday, Joe Pantalion of the Watershed Protection Department led a media tour of the $147 million mile-long tunnel through the soft Austin limestone. The soft rock has sped the progress of creating the tunnel, which is 26 feet in diameter and runs from the inlet at Waterloo Park to Lady Bird Lake.


The tunnel, underwritten by a tax-increment finance district, is expected to open in 2014. Citywide drainage fees also will help underwrite the cost.


At a “Meet Your Designers Night” at the Blanton Museum last Tuesday night, competition manager Don Stastny introduced four teams in competition to change the landscape for the lower 1.5 miles of Waller Creek. The credentials of the finalists seem to indicate the city is committed to an ecologically friendly solution with a strong emphasis on maintaining the Austin character.


Each team presented its strengths and track record of completed projects, stressing themes that could be applied to the Waller Creek project. One team, Turenscape and Lake | Flato Architects, was, as Ted Flato quipped, the “obvious San Antonio-Beijing team for the project.”


Lake | Flato is known for its Hill Country flair, a real crowd pleaser in projects like the new downtown library and the Lady Bird Wildflower Center. It was Kongjian Yu of Turenscape, however, that wowed the audience.


Yu showed a presentation of stark Shanghai landscapes turned into urban oases, telling a story of a company that had succeeded cleaning up what Yu called “the messed up environment,” transforming brownfields into luxury tourist designations. Lake | Flato showed its own work in adaptive re-use in San Antonio, including the Pearl Brewery.


CMG and Public Architecture stressed the unique public outreach efforts in its portfolio, highlighting smaller spaces in San Francisco.

The team underlined a common theme for all those completing, which was sensitivity to what one team called the area’s “new urban ecology.” 


The design team of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates and Thomas Phifer & Partners focused its presentation on its ability to take what’s on the ground and integrate new uses into the existing landscape.


Such was the case of its work around the St. Louis Arch, using the topography of Wellesley College. It also redefined the space around the Brooklyn Bridge, where aspects of the existing infrastructure, underground train towers, was integrated into the design of the site. 

The fourth team in the Waller Creek competition included Workshop: Ken Smith Landscape Architect, Ten Eyck Landscape Architects and Rogers Marvel Architects. Two of the principals came from New York City.


Christine Ten Eyck, an obvious audience favorite, was better known for her landscape architecture work with Lake | Flato. Smith is known for his work on the East River Waterfront in Lower Manhattan, which Smith compared to the area around Austin’s concrete logjam known as Interstate 35. The riverfront project was basically built on non-green concrete freeway frontage.


Smith and Rob Rogers worked together on a project to revitalize 55 Water Street, which turned an unused space into a go-to meeting location with, among other things, a million dollar light source to create a night-time identity for the space.


Each design team, named finalists in April from a field of 31 entries, will provide a public exhibition of the envisioned redesign work in September. A jury will evaluate the concepts, rank the teams and make recommendations in October. The final decision will be decided by a governance group on Oct. 16.

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