Going With the Flow
The LCRA Connection
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.
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.
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?"