Taking a Walk along Waller
As long as there's been an Austin, the six miles of Waller Creek have been part of it, the only one of our many waterways entitled to that claim. It is, indeed, named for Austin's first mayor and city planner, Edwin Waller, whose 1839 grid for the infant Capitol City extended to Shoal Creek and the Colorado but past Waller Creek to the present-day I-35. Its banks cradled the graves of Austin's first official dead - two of Waller's surveyors, scalped by the Indians. (Their burial place became the initial city cemetery, under today's Waller Creek Centre, née Avante Plaza.) Its first white landholder was the Father of Austin, Mirabeau Lamar, second president of the Republic, who farmed 68 acres around what is now Eastwoods Park. He also got driven out by the Indians, who had a permanent encampment near a spring at the end of 43rd Street.
Back then, when things were simpler, Waller Creek's public identity was simpler as well: It was in the way. It had its uses - carrying away pre-industrial wastes from slaughterhouses, a cannon foundry, and the stables of the Republic's cavalry and draft horses, and watering the estates of Lamar and other early Austin gentry in what came to be Hyde Park. But otherwise, since everything of interest came to Austin from the east, Waller Creek lived to be jumped, and the ways it was jumped helped shape today's central city.
Austin's first foot, carriage, and railroad bridges were all built over the creek near Pine and Pecan (today's Fifth and Sixth) Streets, making those streets the major east-west downtown thoroughfares. Before the bridges, people and things either rode upriver by barge to the Stone Docks, at the foot of Trinity Street, or got dropped on Waller Creek's banks. In this way East Austin was born - when the French Legation was built, there was no way to haul stone and timber across the creek, so it went up on the Eastside. It wasn't until 1882, when the State Capitol was built, that a high stone bridge over the creek at 12th Street was built for this same purpose - it's still there, one of the city's oldest public structures.
Today, Austin's extensive creek system underlies our self-concept as a unique environmental masterpiece, and most of our waterways are flanked by parkland to keep the city and its stresses at bay. This consciousness is not as recent as one might think, however; the city's 1928 masterplan was the birthplace of the Shoal Creek Greenbelt - our first watershed park - but it was already too late for Waller Creek, which had been thoroughly urbanized and largely defiled. The northern reaches were still attractive, running through the gracious gardens of people like J. Frank Dobie and Elizabet Ney. But Lower Waller Creek had become an eyesore, littered with dumps, swamps, and shotgun shacks, even then a haven for the seedy, derelict, and criminal. (As a young congressman, Lyndon Johnson called for cleaning up the "hotbeds of crime" in Waller Creek's shantytowns.)
The population density of the development around Waller Creek watershed, more than the actual volume of water it carries (less than half that of Shoal Creek), made its basin prone to dangerous and frustrating floods. Drainage across downtown, from the Capitol southwest to Sixth Street, was so heavy it could float a boat (the flow path is marked on some old maps as a separate creek), while on the east side of the creek, runoff from the Robertson Hill area washed out East Avenue with alarming frequency. Combined with the flow from upstream, the resulting torrents could be devastating, with a 1913 deluge claiming many homes and at least two dozen lives.
The superficials are different today, but the story is much the same - Waller Creek languishes fitfully, breeding rats, sheltering crack dealers, and flooding its banks every time it rains. Largely beyond the realm of environmental preservation, the creek's fortunes have instead been yoked to downtown revitalization. The what-to-do-with-Waller question - a greenbelt park? a pedestrian thoroughfare? a commercial drag a la San Antonio's Riverwalk? - has been tackled several times over the past two decades, with creek improvements drafted, and sometimes built, by an all-star cast of Austin architects including Sinclair Black, Alan Taniguchi, Tom Shefelman, and David Graeber.
The latest of those junctures is right now, as the Austin Parks and Recreation Department (PARD) embarks on a $1.6 million project - bankrolled with federal funds - to complete and rehabilitate the Waller Creek Hike and Bike Trail, first built out in the early 1980s with a previous federal allotment but left unfinished and since severely damaged. "Our primary task is to fill in missing links, from Waterloo Park [between 12th and 15th Streets] all the way to Town Lake," says PARD's Stuart Strong. "A secondary objective is to add more amenities - lighting, landscaping, benches, and especially signage. Right now, unless you know the terrain, you're not sure where you are - we want people using the trail to know where to get off for Sixth Street."
At the same time, the city's Public Works Department, with funds transferred from the drainage utility, is beginning a comprehensive flood-control study of Waller Creek, aiming to not only avert destruction but to protect the creek's water quality, which is pretty rank (no less an authority than city Councilmember Brigid Shea describes it as "revolting"), and to manage the creek flow in a way that supports future developments like a "creekwalk." "We want to figure out what kind of commercial district or urban amenity Waller Creek could be," says Public Works' Tom Hegemier, "if we didn't have all the flooding problems."
The two projects, though separate and on different timelines, are being coordinated - the teams overseeing each share members - which should be comforting to those who worked on the previous Waller Creek makeover in the early 1980s. "We included various flood control elements in our master plan," says Tom Shefelman, architect of the existing Waller Creek trail, "including a flood bypass tunnel as well as pumping water up from Town Lake to maintain a constant level. I guess we all had an image of the San Antonio River in our mind's eye." (Variations of both these ideas - a diversion channel and a pump-driven recirculation system - keep San Antonio's Riverwalk from inundating hordes of fajita-munching conventioneers.)
"But the leadership of PARD at the time decided flood control was not their first priority," Shefelman continues, "and there was a price tag they couldn't budget with the money we had, so we ended up with part of a hike-and-bike trail; we had to keep going up to street level, and we had to abandon the big part south of First Street. Where we went down to the creek, we made some efforts at erosion control, some effective and some futile." Several of the bridges and creekside sections built by Shefelman's team have since been destroyed by flood, and it was at his and other urban designers' prompting that the development-related objectives were added to the Public Works study.
As for water quality, it occupies the lowest priority in the study, since there are very few obvious solutions, given the almost complete impervious cover in parts of the Waller Creek watershed and the multiple entities - city, state, university, and numerous private landholders - that own parts of the watershed. "Making big improvements is going to be a real challenge," Hegemier says.
The flood-control ideas in Shefelman's master plan - some of which were proposed as early as 1968 - will be "looked at real hard" in the Public Works study, says Hegemier, who adds that Waller Creek is a much thornier drainage problem than Shoal Creek, despite the latter's greater size and flow. "We know a whole lot about Shoal Creek because of the Memorial Day flood (in 1981), and the city owns most of the land along Shoal, which we don't along Waller," he explains.
The major strategy in abating Shoal Creek's flood potential has been to widen and deepen the channel, which is not really possible along Waller, since it flows over bedrock, is relatively narrow and, at least at the lower end, is developed right to the water's edge. "We mostly need to figure out what the best and most cost-effective solutions are going to be," Hegemier says, "because we don't have any funding right now for actual improvements. Hopefully, the report will give us direction; then it's up to the City Council to figure out how to fund what needs to be done, or even if they want to pursue it."
The current council, with its mix of enviros (one of whom, Shea, lives along Waller Creek) and downtown hawks, will probably want to pursue it, especially after dropping $1.6 million of Uncle Sam's money on a new hike-and-bike trail, and most especially if they want to create a creekwalk. "Without flood control being resolved, I don't know what they could hope to do along the creek," says Sheraton Austin manager Jack Highsmith, whose Sixth Street hotel (along with its twin, though separately owned, office building) overhangs the creek. "They have a great asset, but it would take a lot of money to develop."
Flood control could also change the complexion of the Convention Center, which - ever since discussions focused on its current site - was supposed to open up to Waller Creek, with patrons in some plans entering the Center by crossing a footbridge (from parking structures) over the creek. When the Center was actually built, though, its lower levels had to be above the 100-year flood level, which has made the Waller Creek facade - the most, arguably the only, attractive part of the place - largely invisible and certainly inaccessible. The PARD grant project comprises much intended work - both by the Center's District Design Guidelines and the subsequent Regional Urban Development Team (R/UDAT) downtown-renewal plan - to be completed as part of the Convention Center construction project.
For now, though, the flood-damaged trail is more a physical challenge than a pathway to the Convention Center. That - along with its adjacency to the police headquarters, jail, Salvation Army, and the like - has made it a popular hangout for Austin's underclass. If you are hankering to see used needles, inebriates sleeping on abandoned mattresses, and tricks being turned under bridges, Waller Creek is the place to be - as guests at the Capitol Marriott found out recently when Austin police busted and clubbed, at poolside, a miscreant whom they'd chased through the creekbed. (The hotel has posted notices at the creek's edge discouraging its guests from venturing onto the trail.)
"Right now, there's both a perceived and real danger to Waller Creek," says Jose Martinez, president of the Austin Downtown Management Organization (DMO). "Any improvements, both public and private, should consider this, so that hotel guests and others can walk to Town Lake without either physical interruptions or fear for their safety." On top of structural changes, though, many commercial interests along the creek call for a stronger APD presence. "You have to do something direct," says Capitol Marriott manager Ron Paynter. "San Antonio still has security issues on the Riverwalk, and you can't get more improved and developed than that."
With the floods controled, the riffraff cleaned up, and the trail built through all the way to Town Lake, Waller Creek could realize its potential as a downtown asset. But what kind of asset would it be? The "creekwalk" idea, long-running as it is, is very ill-defined, and handicapped by the fragmented ownership of the lower creek. "There's been visions for years, but someone needs to be the developer who gets this started," says Paynter, who thinks that any development below street level will always be unfeasible. "You need entrepreneurs, you need the availability of money, you need a master plan. If you rely on each individual, it will never happen."
The last contender for that role of mastermind, David Graeber, was attached to the controversial Texas Riverboat Renaissance project, which proposed damming the mouth of Waller Creek and turning it into a boat slip for a floating casino. This idea was roundly reviled by many civic leaders, on many grounds, not the least of them environmental concerns. Yet there seems to be consensus that, although Waller Creek is a surprisingly fertile habitat - one can see snakes, herons, owls, crawfish, and nutria in Waterloo Park, along with the usual perch, turtles, and lots of riverine flora - there is no way or reason to make it pristine. "It was long ago clobbered as a natural waterway," says Shefelman, "and would require demolition and resdesign to change it back. But we can have commercial development without throwing away the green space that's there now. Having an interaction with the creek should be the priority of any development, not just a by-product."
Shefelman may be an optimist for thinking that a fully realized development of Waller Creek is going to happen within a mortal lifetime. Many other observers feel that, despite the years of dreaming about a new and improved Waller Creek, the lack of obvious sources of money and energy will always retard progress toward that goal - or at least that the process of reinventing Waller Creek is only at its very beginning. "I've been around here for 20 years and seen lots of work done on Waller Creek," says the Sheraton's Highsmith, "and I think we're still about 100 consultants away."