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Final four designs unveiled for Waller Creek redevelopment

Wednesday, September 19, 2012 by Kimberly Reeves

The Waller Creek Conservancy on Tuesday unveiled four ambitious designs from internationally known teams to create what officials are calling the nation’s most extensive transformation of an urban creek.


In the next month, after a series of public viewings, a jury will select a winning design to present to Austin City Council in the hopes of doing nothing less than remaking a neglected waterway only given attention during floods into an inviting and lush park on the eastern edge of downtown Austin.


Each of the four finalists’ designs was intended to best represent Austin in creating a unique destination along the 20-block, 1.5-mile-long corridor on the eastern edge of downtown.


Waller Creek Conservancy Executive Director Stephanie Lee McDonald described the arrival of the art boards for the four finalists to be something akin to Christmas, and to prove the point the conservancy’s website went down three times on the first day the renderings were posted.  (You can try the website to view the plans for yourself:


McDonald and Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, the long-time champion of the redevelopment of Waller Creek, were both at AMOA’s Laguna Gloria for a private media briefing on Tuesday. They were joined by Melba Whatley, president of the Waller Creek Conservancy board and a strong long-time advocate for the visual arts in Austin.


McDonald described the four designs as a frame. It’s not a jumble of shops pushed up to the edge of a concrete bound river. Instead, the land closest to the creek is intentionally lush and riparian, focused on creating activity and motion, with development and venues blended into the background.


Cole said, “This is not intended to be the Riverwalk. This is a commitment to our environment and to our native plants and to our wildlife. It will be a process of restoring all those things and make a new community gathering place for us to come to.”


The initial phase of the master planning will run the 20 blocks from Martin Luther King Boulevard to Lady Bird Lake, crossing near Centennial, Waterloo and Palm parks and incorporating Symphony Square and what is being called “Waller Beach.”


Cole came to the Waller Creek project because of her commitment of minimizing the tangible and intangible barriers that have separated downtown from East Austin.


“This would be a project that provides connectivity between East and West Austin,” Cole said. “It also creates economic opportunity. It also enhances our environmental features. It does a lot of things, but most of all it creates a destination spot that brings our community together.”


Each project has its own approach to reinvigorating the oft-ignored Waller Creek area.


CMG and Public Architecture, a team with a strong Austin emphasis, focused on bio-habitats and public art. The team describes various “creek episodes,” providing a sketch of a whimsical canopy of lights at Sabine Street known as a “promenade at dusk.” The Waller Creek lakefront includes kayaks, paddleboats and a soccer field.


The MVVA concept – which is the partnership of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates and Thomas Phifer and Partners – struck for a series of lattice bridges to span the creek at six different junctures. The concept pictures a cove with play spaces for children near Palm Park and a new floating lawn where Waller Creek opens onto Lady Bird Lake.


Turenscape + Lake|Flato Architects teamed up the designer of the city’s new central library with the eclectic vision of China-based Turenscape, which presented some of the most striking images during an initial introduction to meet the teams in May. The images for this concept were striking for its bold colors, its earthwork terraces and its smart irrigation system. The concept also includes Cypress Walk, an elevated walkway along the bottom of Waller Creek.


The final team, known as Workshop, is led by Ken Smith Landscape Architects, Ten Eyck Landscape Architects and Rogers Marvel Architects. In May, the team showed striking images of reclaimed waterfront locations in New York City. The team called its concept Keep Waller Wild and focused on expanded sidewalks that wind through the riparian landscape where native flora and fauna flourish.


This is the first juried design competition of its type in Austin. The Waller Creek Conservancy has teamed up with the City of Austin on the public-private partnership, with each contributing $400,000 as seed funding for the initial design competition. The four finalist teams, led by two design leaders, typically include somewhere between a dozen and 20 members. While the boards and ideas presented for discussion are striking in nature, the vision of each probably won’t be realized until the teams address the competition jury next month. The jury will pick a winner in mid-October and the winner will be presented for a vote of Austin City Council on Oct. 18.


Then the fundraising for the Waller Creek vision will begin in earnest. Conservancy officials estimates they will raise $50 million to $60 million to begin the implementation of the project. Backers compare the public-private partnership of the Waller Creek redevelopment to Discovery Green in Houston and Millennium Park in Chicago. The revitalized trail will be a signature attraction, one as easily associated with Austin as the Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail along Lady Bird Lake.


The above-ground Waller Creek improvements are made possible by the construction of a $145 million, mile-long tunnel of about 24-feet in diameter that is designed to limit flooding and maintain a constant water flow throughout the creek, improve water quality and prevent further erosion. The completion of the tunnel is expected in 2014.

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