Going With the Flow

by Mike Clark-Madison


Perry Lorenz and other property owners envision Waller Creek as a major downtown destination, complete with a steam train along Fourth Street.

courtesy Graeber Simmons & Cowam

More than two dec-ades after the fate of Waller Creek became an important civic issue, the city is finally poised to make the creek's renewal a reality. Does that mean that 20-plus years of discussions have produced a consensus vision for the new Waller Creek? Of course not.

Since well before you and your neighbors voted in May to swing $25 million in bed-tax collections Waller Creek's way, it's been clear that the proposed Waller Creek Tunnel -- an enormous underground pipe designed to divert floodwaters safely away from the east side of downtown -- was not simply an engineering project. Rather, the tunnel is the first step, many hope, toward converting the Lower Waller Creek corridor into a glittering downtown attraction, inevitably influenced by San Antonio's wildly successful Paseo del Rio, better known as the Riverwalk.

Problem is, Waller Creek is not the San Antonio River, and when downtown interests and creekside property owners realized that a "Creekwalk" was impossible, much doo-doo hit many fans in the Central Business District. At the same time, the path of the tunnel took a surprising detour toward the offices of the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), which has announced its interest in adding Waller Creek to its ever-growing portfolio of projects. In the months since May, more questions have been asked than answered, but when the answers finally come, they may dictate the outlines of how Austin works far beyond the creek's decrepit banks.

We trust you need no reminding that Lower Waller Creek, from Waterloo Park to Town Lake, is a dump. Or, to pinch a couple of the mayor's favorite phrases, "a running sore" and "an ugly hole in the ground." This is a point that seems conceded by "citizen" and "developer" alike, though their visions of what Waller Creek should look like may vary.

Starting in 1976 -- when the city adopted an ambitious plan of creek improvements as Austin's "Bicentennial gift to the nation" -- a lot of energy has gone into making Waller Creek both beautiful and useful. But most of it has literally been washed away in the creek's frequent flooding; today, the water is rank, the trail is largely impassable, and the creekbed is home to all manner of vice. Hence the tunnel, a 5,880-foot-long, 20-foot-wide tube 70 feet below Trinity Street, set to cost $20 million at current estimates. (The other $5 million is for erosion control, bank stabilization, and so forth.)

When storms come, the water coming down Waller Creek from its upper reaches (the creek originates in St. John's and passes through north central Austin and the UT campus) into Waterloo Park, at 15th Street, will instead flow through the tunnel at around 16 feet per second, emerging near the creek's confluence with Town Lake. The rest of the time, the flow would be reversed; fresh water from Town Lake would be pumped up the tunnel, come out in Waterloo Park, and cascade down the creek, making it both cleaner and more aesthetically pleasing.

Downtown developer Perry Lorenz is working with property owners on design guidelines for Waller Creek development.

photograph by John Anderson

The tunnel would shrink Lower Waller's 100-year floodplain, which currently includes property up to four blocks away, down to the current banks of the creek itself. It would not, however, eliminate all flooding within Waller Creek, as the civil engineers in San Antonio have made possible on the Riverwalk; during big storms, as much as 10 feet of water will end up in the narrowest reaches of Lower Waller, such as between Sixth and Fourth streets.

Since the "magic" -- from the developers' perspective -- of the Riverwalk is that the water is right there at your feet, not way down below, this realization was a major buzz-buster and led to the pitching of more than one fit. Never mind that it should have been common sense, since any water draining into Waller Creek below Waterloo Park -- that is, the runoff from half of downtown and most of the inner East Side, where impervious cover is the norm and slopes are fairly steep -- has to go somewhere.

"There could be solutions, but they'd be equally expensive," says George Oswald, chief engineer of the city's Watershed Protection Utility. "We could build another tunnel under I-35, or a series of side tunnels, but none of the previous engineering" -- the two previous studies, from 1985 and 1996, that laid out the tunnel vision -- "ever gave the impression there wouldn't be water in the creek." Oswald says that firms competing for the tunnel contract will be asked to suggest solutions for handling the downstream runoff. "They'll be earning some hefty design fees for the tunnel, and we expect them to work for that money."

The LCRA Connection

The tunnel itself is a simple concept, and enough of its specifics have already been outlined that "design" will be the easy part. The far more important challenge will be building the sucker, and that is where your friends at LCRA make their odd appearance.

Many greens and progressives hardly see the LCRA and its general manager, former Austin City Councilmember Mark Rose, as allies. Instead, LCRA is blamed for fighting the city of Austin's hard-fought efforts to slow sprawl in the Hill Country, by offering utility service to all the places the city doesn't want it offered. That has nothing to do with Waller Creek, but the thought of LCRA taking up residence in the center of town has led to its own set of pitched fits from the left.

Questions about LCRA's ulterior motives are perhaps inevitable, given the circumstances. The authority, without being asked by the city or, as far as we know, by anyone else, offered to donate $1 million in its services to serve as project manager for the tunnel, a role normally filled by city staff on big public-works projects. (The current exception is the new airport, being overseen by the consulting firm Parsons Brinckerhoff under contract with the city.) Though this offer didn't become publicly reported until after the May bond election, LCRA voiced its interest in the Waller Creek project to the city as soon as it was put on the bond ballot.

Ramon Trias' rendering, below, shows a hard edge between in the creek and buildings, while Perry Lorenz's vision, above, shows a "soft edge" between people and creek.

courtesy Graeber Simmons & Cowam

The authority claims to have nothing but the public interest in mind, and since the tunnel is designed to improve water quality and flood management in the Lower Colorado river basin, it clearly falls within LCRA's mission, although the authority has never before built substantial infrastructure within the city limits. Talks are under way now on cutting a final deal that -- in response to the concerns of the Austin City Council -- makes clear that the tunnel belongs to, and will be controlled by, the city and not LCRA. "The city will have ultimate right of review over both the design work and the construction," Oswald says, "but the project manager would be responsible for the quality of the work."

The LCRA offer is attractive, Oswald says, for more than the obvious reason. "A million dollars is real money," he says, "but it's also an opportunity for the city and LCRA to work together and see what else we can do. It's a good test case, where we can explore our working relationship without tying the LCRA into anything else we have to do." He points out, though, that LCRA isn't really better qualified than the city to build a tunnel, which "isn't done every day. LCRA builds a lot of big infrastructure, but they're not tunnel experts either; with or without them, we'd likely call on external expertise." The real tunnel experts are the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but their timetable -- at least 10 years -- was too long for the tastes of Austinites.

Despite Oswald's caveat and the concerns of progressives on the City Council and elsewhere, the Waller Creek property owners seem quite pleased about LCRA being on board. In the words of one of their number, Carl Daywood, "I'm often disappointed in how the city runs projects; I've heard nothing but good things about how LCRA does theirs. So it couldn't be any worse, and perhaps a lot better, than what would have happened otherwise. We need to start doing these kinds of joint ventures, and maybe working with the LCRA would be better than fighting with them all the time."

Daywood's views, echoed by property owners up and down the creek, suggest that the Waller Creek offer -- if it can't possibly be taken at face value -- likely was born not of sinister LCRA backroom plotting but of lunchtime banter at the Headliners Club, with downtowners and Chamber types prevailing upon Rose and his colleagues to take over the project, or vice versa. But even the developers' enthusiasm has its limits. "As a property owner, I'm more confident having LCRA involved in the project below ground," says Will Wynn, president of Civitas Investments and vice-chair of the Downtown Austin Alliance. "Above ground, I'm counting on the city and property owners to do things the Austin way."

Greenbelt or Retail?

To many, "the Austin way" means bickering and finger-pointing and confusion, and the steps so far toward a vision, let alone a master plan, for developing the Lower Waller Creek corridor would leave few of those cynics surprised.

For starters, we can't be sure the community at large even wants or will accept a built-out, Riverwalk-esque Lower Waller Creek, as opposed to a greenbelt, or a hike-and-bike trail primarily designed for actual (non-motorized) transportation, as opposed to leisurely promenading from shop to club. For the last few years, the Parks and Recreation Department, with funding from the federal pork barrel, has been planning and building improvements to the existing, largely decrepit trail, with special attention on connecting it to the Town Lake trail and creating an effective ped/bike route from the Southside to UT. The PARD project has now run into two potential obstacles: The post-tunnel creek's water level may overwash the existing segments of the trail, requiring additional improvements, and the creekside property owners are pushing for PARD to delay its planning until they've figured out their own intended uses.

Construction of a flood control tunnel would run from 15th Street through Waterloo Park to 12th Street, south under Trinity to the mouth of the creek (dotted line).

Having said that, the passage of the May bond proposal for the tunnel -- and, in the same package, the expansion of the Austin Convention Center -- is generally attributed to a Faustian bargain between the enviros and the developers: The greens can have Barton Creek, and the Chamber can have Waller Creek. While this may mean nothing when the full scale of Waller Creek development becomes clear to the general public -- look at what happened at the Triangle -- it has for the moment muted talk of Waller Creek as a full-scale nature trail, which would be a pretty mean feat in such a highly developed and altered watershed.

In recent weeks, instead, the controversy has been over the design realities imposed by the engineering of the tunnel, and the impossibility of ending Waller Creek flooding for good and all. Back when the tunnel was first heading for the May ballot, developers Robert Knight and Perry Lorenz -- owners of substantial creekside holdings and well connected to Austin's progressive leadership -- engaged the architecture firm of Graeber, Simmons and Cowan to draw up renderings of the developed Waller Creek, all of which look a lot like the Riverwalk, with dining and strolling at the water's edge. These were greeted with a chorus of oohs and aahs.

Then, right before the May vote, the city engaged Florida consultant Ramon Trias, overseer of the previous Barton Springs Road and Triangle charrettes, to conduct a quasi-charrette -- a brainstorming session, really -- over Waller Creek. The renderings Trias produced in the resulting report look noticeably different from Lorenz's vision, recalling Amsterdam's canals more than the Riverwalk, with a hard edge of walls and steps between the buildings and the creek. These designs respond to more than just the flood-level issue; they also support the PARD trail's purpose as an unobstructed ped/bike thoroughfare, in this case grade-separated from the shops and eateries.

The Trias designs also reflect an important difference between Austin and San Antonio. The Alamo City's downtown features an irregular grid of narrow and heavily congested streets where parking is scarce and dear; the Riverwalk, which runs in a near-circle throughout downtown, is not just an attraction, but often the simplest way to get from Point A to Point B. Downtown Austin is the opposite, with a regular grid of wide streets, fairly fast-moving traffic, and fairly ample parking. While Lower Waller Creek may be a useful link in a trail route to downtown and beyond, visitors making their way around downtown will likely remain at street level, where the Convention Center and all but two of the hotels are. This would put the creek in the businesses' backyards, not at their front doors like the San Antonio River -- much as Waller is now where it passes the Convention Center, or the Sheraton, or the city's Waller Creek Center, or the Capitol Marriott. The Trias designs basically extend this current treatment, in different ways for different zones of the creek.

Nevertheless, hell broke loose when the Trias designs came out; since then, the city engineers and Waller Creek property owners have met, walked the creek, gone over details, and turned down the heat on the issue. "In the end, the vision and the reality are intact; that we can have an Austin-style natural creekway and still have the development we want and need," says Lorenz. "While we'll have to tolerate up to a 25-year flood event, it's not the end of the world and the sky is not falling." By "natural," Lorenz means not a nature trail per se, but a "soft edge" between people and creek, as opposed to the "choked-off concrete ditch" suggested by the Trias renderings.

Lorenz has effectively taken leadership of the Waller Creek property owners, moving to organize an actual Lower Waller Creek Neighborhood Association to come up with design guidelines for the creek. This is just dandy with the city, which after the negative response to the Trias report has washed its hands of planning post-tunnel Waller Creek development. "Officially, we're doing nothing," says city planner Michael Knox. "What I've suggested to the Downtown Austin Alliance is forming a partnership between the property owners, organizations like the DAA, and city departments, and have us all work together. The city has several departments involved, and some of the creek is totally within private property lines. We can't do anything, really, without that cooperation."

Both Knox and Oswald note that the city has some discretion -- particularly with that $5 million of bond money devoted to surface improvements along the creek -- in configuring its efforts, and future rules and regulations about creek development, to match what the property owners want; PARD may do the same with its trail project. That message, in turn, is just dandy with the property owners. "If the city just does its own plan, the property owners aren't going to take it lying down," says Mac Pike of Sutton Lofts, which is planning a new project on the site of the Reddy Ice plant on Ninth Street. "But everyone wants the end to be the same, it's just figuring out the best way to get there."

However, the property owners are likewise waiting on the city, they say, to tell them what they can do. "I think the city needs to make a commitment to the developers that they will allow sidewalks and outdoor dining, perhaps with furniture being bolted down," in the creek's floodway, Daywood says. "And the city needs to make a commitment to having clear design guidelines now; that's the sort of planning that needs to be done up-front."

Given the risk-averse, show-me attitudes that characterize most developers in most places -- downtown Austin included -- an entirely developer-driven project may end up being more generic than Waller Creek, whatever its final form, should be. "I keep telling the downtown folks that we can have something better than the Riverwalk," says Oswald. "The character of Waller Creek is moving water -- clean, cool water tumbling down the creek; the Riverwalk is attractive without that, but why shouldn't we try to be unique and make Austin different?"