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Architect unveils conservancy’s plans for Waller Creek makeover

Wednesday, June 12, 2013 by Charlotte Moore

Austin leaders want to give one of the city’s underperforming assets – Waller Creek – an extreme makeover. But it’s going to take cooperation from private landowners, and maybe some action from our men and women in blue, to make the concept a reality.

The joint development agreement between the Waller Creek Conservancy, the City of Austin and the Waller Creek Local Government Corporation, is a public-private endeavor somewhat similar to the multi-year, multi-phased, mixed-use Mueller Development and has some of the same oversight. Members of the Conservancy have been shopping around their almost utopian vision of the nearly two-mile stretch of creek from Lady Bird Lake to Waterloo Park.

The conservancy held a Waller Creek design competition and a jury chose the plans of a team led by world renowned waterfront landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh, whose long list of award-winning work includes The Brooklyn Bridge Park. The ambitious concept includes opening up the Waller Creek channel, creating a chain of five public parks, adding a pontoon bridge across Lady Bird Lake, and building an art nouveau performance venue in Waterloo Park called The Poppy.

Don’t expect to actually see any cranes or construction workers making this a reality anytime soon, though.

“There’s still a lot of design work that has to happen between the plans and what gets constructed,” said Stephanie McDonald, executive director of the Waller Creek Conservancy. “If this gets approved, there’s still a lot of work to do.”

The city predicts the entire project could take 20 years, in fact. And at a cost of – well, who knows?

“This is a long-term project…it’s hard to discuss cost,” McDonald said. “The idea is to divide the redesign into a set of projects. “We don’t really know which projects will be funded, which will capture the hearts of the private sector and the philanthropic community. Maybe certain things will take priority. Because we’re going to take this project by project, it’s hard for us to give a total cost.”

Some of the work will be paid for by voter-approved bond funds and possibly money from operating or capital improvement funds which council would approve. The city will set up a system by which it will disburse funds for various phases of the project in the same way it has done for other public-private partnerships, “for example, the Zach Scott Topfer Theatre,” Assistant City Attorney Leela Fireside told Council. “We had a mechanism when that got started for how to disburse the bond funds to be used in conjunction with the private funds that were raised by the theatre to build that.”

In addition to funding, another obstacle the Conservancy will face is how to maneuver around or work with private landowners along the creek. McDonald admits, some privately-owned property is incorporated in areas of the breathtakingly green concept. When asked, local real estate developer Perry Lorenz, who owns property along the Creek, said he does find that peculiar.

“I think the design is absolutely fabulous,” he said. “It will be a fabulous thing for Austin. I applaud the Conservancy for such a bold plan. My only concern is there are ambitious plans up and down Waller Creek underway to develop property along the creek. I hope private property owners’ plans mesh with the Conservancy’s plans. It’s important for the Conservancy and the land owners to be in frank communication. I look forward to seeing it built out.”

The concept as it is would also entail booting the APD Headquarters building off the land on which it now sits at East 8th Street just off I-35, an idea McDonald says was not the Conservancy’s. “The city has already been talking about moving APD headquarters,” she said. As for the private land issue, McDonald said the parts of the concept depicted on privately-owned land are suggestive. And while the Conservancy definitely plans to work with landowners, its focus is on the publicly-owned parkland.

“If you walk the creek, there is an existing trail system along publicly-owned space,” she said. “That’s where the priority is. And we will work with landowners and property developers in the future to make sure it does work.”

Assistant City Manager Sue Edwards told Council the city’s transportation department is also involved in the project.

“We are in the process of discussing with transportation the pontoon bridge and the location of (light) rail,” she said. “Wherever the pontoon bridge goes, it will be a joint decision about how we move forward, since we’re going to be moving forward with the pontoon bridge certainly before rail is going to end – if it gets there.”

To which Council Member Laura Morrison asked jokingly, “Are you suggesting that the pontoon bridge serve as a bridge for rail?”

“No,” said Edwards, “We are not.”

Overall, Council members appeared impressed with the concept.

“Almost as exciting as the project itself—the aesthetic—is the model that it begins,” said Mayor Lee Leffingwell. “It’s a public-private partnership which I think can serve as a model, not only for Waller Creek, but other places across the city.”

During the its next meeting on June 20, Council could authorize the city manager to negotiate and execute the agreement and approve the design plan.

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