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'Design Waller Creek: A Competition'

Winning design for Waller Creek Conservancy's contest creates civic spaces amid greenery

By Robert Faires, Fri., Oct. 26, 2012

The Poppy, the proposed bandshell for concerts in Waterloo Park
The Poppy, the proposed bandshell for concerts in Waterloo Park
Illustration courtesy of Waller Creek Conservancy

All four visions for transforming the neglected creek along Downtown's eastern edge offered compelling images of a thriving natural corridor from Lady Bird Lake to Waterloo Park, but in the end, the one with the Lattice, the Grove, the Narrows, the Refuge, and the Confluence proved most dynamic to those making the final selection in Waller Creek Conservancy's international competition to reimagine its namesake waterway.

Those sections are what the team of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates and Thomas Phifer & Partners christened the individual links in the chain of parks it proposes along the 16-plus blocks of the Waller site plan. Each has a distinctive character and purpose as civic space: the Lattice, south of Cesar Chavez Street, serves pedestrians on trails with numerous bridges spanning Waller Creek; the Grove, in the Palm Park block east of Red River, makes a public gathering spot for community programs and performances under the shade of live oaks and quarried stone; the Narrows, threading through the entertainment district from Fifth to Seventh streets, offers incentives for development; the Refuge, between Seventh and Ninth streets, provides new wetland habitat; and the Confluence, at Waterloo Park, enhances this public commons with new bicycle and pedestrian trails and a luminous pavilion, the Poppy, for concerts. In its report on the finalists, the jury lauded the design's "depth of understanding as to how people would use and experience this civic place. The vision places Waller Creek, itself, as the thread of continuity through nodes of gathering space and activity." Citing the MVVA team's superior vision, professional ability, and design leadership, the jury said its proposal "offered the most substantial promise for transforming Waller Creek into a connected series of public spaces that are of an inclusive, democratic character."

The jury's decision, endorsed by a City Council vote on Oct. 18, winds up an 11-month process initiated by the Conservancy, the nonprofit that has assumed responsibility for the protection, improvement, and care of Waller and its surrounding greenspace. Thirty-one design teams responded to last November's call for submissions, with nine of those named semifinalists by a jury of five professionals representing urban design, architecture, landscape architecture, economic development, and restoration ecology. That was winnowed to four finalists in May: MVVA/Phifer & Partners, CMG and Public Architecture, Turenscape + Lake|Flato Architects, and Workshop: Ken Smith Landscape Architect with Ten Eyck Landscape Architects and Rogers Marvel Architects. These teams spent 18 weeks fleshing out their designs, which they exhibited to the public in September and presented to council on Oct. 3. Two days later, the jury submitted its unanimous choice to the Governance Group – Conservancy founders Tom Meredith, Melba Whatley, and Melanie Barnes; board member Rudy Green; UT School of Architecture Dean Frederick Steiner; and Parks and Recreation Department Director Sara Hensley – which selected the winner.

That ending, however, is also a beginning. Now, the Conservancy starts the massive task of working out what this visionary transformation of Waller will cost, how to pay for it (the Conservancy is now accepting applications for a development director), and how to coordinate its efforts with the city's construction of the $146.5 million flood-control tunnel below the creek. The MVVA design is expected to change as this process continues, so take a moment now to appreciate its scope and imagine yourself wandering the Waller it envisions. For more information on the Waller Creek Conservancy, visit www.wallercreek.org.

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