Developing Stories: What to Do With Waterloo

Turning Waterloo Park into a beach – and other fanciful ideas

The first design round yielded this schematic for Waterloo Park; now, Project for Public Spaces is starting fresh, emphasizing “placemaking” to attract people and varied daily uses.
The first design round yielded this schematic for Waterloo Park; now, Project for Public Spaces is starting fresh, emphasizing “placemaking” to attract people and varied daily uses.

"It needs to be managed like a completely different place!"

That was the big-headline advice from Project for Public Spaces principals Philip Myrick and Kathy Madden at a Dec. 8 community workshop about Waterloo Park. Like all of Austin's Downtown green spaces, Waterloo Park – bordered by 12th and 15th streets and Trinity and Red River – has tremendous potential but attracts relatively few people on a daily basis. As Downtown becomes more dense, though, active urban parks become increasingly critical to the city's quality of life. What Waterloo needs now, said PPS, is an infusion of ideas, enthusiastic champions, community resources, and major philanthropy focused on transforming it into a great public space – the kind that "you never want to leave versus a place you can't wait to get through."

Developing Stories: What to Do With Waterloo

Waterloo Park is getting attention now because it's at the north end of the city's Waller Creek Tunnel Project, directed by the Public Works Department. It's the site of the tunnel inlet, a structure that will house pumps and other equipment; the engineer-led tunnel design team has already begun plans to add a rooftop pavilion over the inlet structure as well as other park improvements. But the construction project will necessitate closing the park altogether from 2012 to 2014. That creates an opportunity, points out Austin Parks Foundation's Charlie McCabe, to completely reinvent and reimagine Waterloo Park's role in city life. Seizing the moment has required a delicate bit of interdepartmental intercession; Parks and Recreation Director Sara Hensley, together with Austin Parks Foundation, has stepped in to help shape the park improvements – with a fresh focus on fully realizing Waterloo's potential rather than on tunnel engineering.

Toward that end, PARD engaged national placemaking guru Project for Public Spaces. The consultant is working with Austinites to create a long-term vision and revitalization plan to re-create Waterloo Park as an attractive destination. (PPS played a similar role years ago, to mixed reviews, on what is now Butler Park; it has consulted more recently on the plaza for the new federal courthouse under construction across from Republic Square Park.) The visioning work is intended to inform a detailed design for the park's development over time – if the money can be found.

To gather input, PPS and PARD staff met with a variety of stakeholder groups Dec. 7-9. By identifying how the park might serve the needs and dreams of Austinites and its neighbors, explained Myrick, PPS will help define exciting new uses and improvements – which in turn could attract the donors to make them happen. Waterloo Park sits across from University Medical Center Brack­en­ridge; some brainstorming focused on how it might serve hospital patients and their families. Other sessions focused on linkages with the University of Texas (including the Texas Natural Science Center, home to the Texas Memorial Museum) and the state Capitol complex. UT and the state own huge parking garages that, unfortunately, line the park's western edge. Discussed: Could Waterloo host a seasonal beach where college students sunbathe (à la the Paris Plage, an artificial beach along the Seine River) or an outdoor dance pavilion atop the circular inlet structure? What about a picnic area and playground for all the school field-trippers who visit the Capitol and the Bob Bullock Texas State History Muse­um? Other stakeholders PPS consulted included the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, the Waller Creek Advisory Committee, special event organizers, disc-golf enthusiasts, City Council members, and city management.

On Dec. 22 PARD scheduled a public stakeholder meeting to discuss specific trees affected by the Waller Creek Tunnel Project, including those in Waterloo Park. Altogether 30 trees along Waller Creek, including 17 slated for removal, will need to be preserved, relocated, or replaced. (For more info, contact [email protected].) PPS will soon be delivering a summary report of results from its workshops, place evaluation exercise, online survey, and interview findings, as well as a vision statement with recommendations. In January, PPS will start developing a written program recommending specific activities and destinations; it will also deliver a preliminary concept plan with a layout of uses and suggested improvements. Look for a public presentation in early February.

See Project for Public Spaces' "Ten Principles for Creating Successful Squares."

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Waterloo Park, Project for Public Spaces, Waller Creek Tunnel Project, Parks and Recreation, Sara Hensley

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