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Design Commission reviews Conservancy’s Waller Creek plans

Thursday, March 28, 2013 by Ramon Ramirez

The director of the Waller Creek Conservancy presented an ambitious vision for the future of Waller Creek to members of the Design Commission on Monday. Stephanie McDonald, the nonprofit’s executive director, solicited input from the commission and presented her group’s latest draft of blueprints. A final plan that factors cost and phasing will be ready for approval in June.

 

The city has already begun a massive tunneling project underneath Waller Creek. That mile-long effort is designed to reduce flooding in the area and will remove 28 acres of downtown land from the floodplain. The underground portion of the plan was approved in 2008 and construction began in early 2011.

“We as the Conservancy in our negotiations with the city of Austin are working on a very comprehensive development and operating agreement,” McDonald said, “There are so many levels of planning – we’re still here at the conceptual plan.”

In October, members of the City Council approved a design by New York- and Massachusetts-based Michael Van Valkenburgh & Associates for the green spaces along Waller Creek. The city will pay for the creek-side work, while the Conservancy has raised funds for the project’s design.

Located on the eastern edges of downtown, the central issue facing this Waller Creek facelift is what to keep and what to change. The concept is a series of five parks starting at Lady Bird Lake and ending at Waterloo Park. One of the principal planners involved has called the design a “charm bracelet,” McDonald said.

 

The plan is a grandiose reimagining of stalwart spaces. Proposed structures include a series of lightweight suspension bridges, a pontoon bridge that crosses Lady Bird Lake and has possible connectivity to Rainey Street, groves of new trees, a new Eighth Street bridge, and Waterloo Park emerging as a futuristic civic gathering space.

 

“We believe that phase one would be a ‘barbell’ approach – (Lady Bird Lake) bridges on one end, Waterloo Park on the other,” McDonald said of the Conservancy’s current hopes for implementation, “We want to make sure that people recognize that we don’t want to hinder activity with this.”

Logistical impediments are widespread, however, and the biggest of these is the current Waller vision as it relates to possible light rail plans.

“The big (issue) for me is the urban rail,” said Design Commission Vice Chair Dean Almy, “That’s a big question for everybody. We don’t even know if it’ll have passed the referendum.” Yet from what Almy has researched, “(urban rail) would more likely go in the location adjacent to Waller Creek and Congress Avenue. I have a concern about how these two things are going to integrate.”

Almy added, “I think it’s inspiring and I hope it happens sooner than later.”

McDonald said jokingly that she is confident the Conservancy’s efforts will prevail over light rail “if we get there first.”

Other major impediments have the same fundamental problem: coordination of the Waller Creek space as it pertains to maxing out “the potential of adjacent sites.”

Changes on the table are widespread and affect spaces like the historic Palm School on Cesar Chavez. A current idea is to move the Dougherty Arts Center closer to the Palm School, incorporate an auditorium, and bring in active programming and renovation dollars. Another is to convert the Palm School into a full-time child care location.

In both cases, the goal is to improve the intersection of downtown and I-35, and that could also mean removal of the concrete embankments that separate East from West along the highway by adding under-highway parking. A proposal for this area even puts a “program space” under I-35 suited for pop up concert space during South by Southwest.

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