City Hall Hustle: On the Road to a Waller Redesign ...

Council fumbles the master plan

In government parlance, "cleanup" items – revisions usually streamlining or clarifying previous legislation – are often post hoc business. Item 30 before City Council last week was just such a cleanup measure, but instead of a little light dusting, it required a Superfund-style scrubbing.

The item in question addressed a measure passed in April regarding the city's plans for Waller Creek – the urban (and flood-prone) waterway flowing southward from the University of Texas, through Waterloo Park, along the Red River entertainment district, and down to Lady Bird Lake. Recently, construction began on the city's Waller Creek Tunnel Project, which will keep the creek's water at a constant flow and pull some 28 acres of developable Downtown real estate out of the 100-year floodplain, to the excitement of developers, the city, and the city's private partner, the Waller Creek Conservancy.

Maybe there was a little too much excitement. The council's April action inking a memorandum of understanding with the conservancy completely removed the project from adhering to the Waller Creek District Master Plan and related portions of the Austin Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan. Together, the Waller Creek plan, our new Comp Plan, and similarly simmering aspirational articles like the Downtown Plan have much to add to the city's Waller Creek plans, from aesthetics to the impact on the surrounding Red River live music scene; disregarding all that wasn't intended.

Or, as many a muscled bouncer's been known to shout come Emo's closing time: Get the fuck outta here!

"When I read the fine print a couple of days later, I realized, somewhat to my horror, that we had done something that I had no intention of doing," said Bill Spelman, launching into a characteristically comprehensive cataloging of what had happened. Essentially, per the city and conservancy's memorandum of understanding, the latter would stage a Waller Creek design competition. "The idea behind the design competition is terrific," said Spelman. "There's a limited number of things which the city is financially capable of putting on that creek right now."

But while the competition allows for some flexibility from designs posited in the master plan, Spelman said, "the master plan has something very basic in it, which, I think when we adopted it in June of 2010, we definitely wanted to keep. That is the thoughts and feelings of hundreds of Austin citizens who worked ... over a three-year period to figure out not exactly what the design needs to look like, but what we want that creek to do, how we want it to behave, what we want the look and feel of the creek to be, what's the program for that design. The design itself that came out of the master plan is less important – it is one good approach to the design of those creek amenities, but not the only one, and probably there's a good chance that we can do better with the design competition if we can engage the efforts of designers from all over the world, or at least all over the United States, to take a look at our creek and see what they want. But that program part of that master plan I thought – and many of us, I believe, thought – was something which was critical and we needed to keep."

Spelman then invited Competition Manager Don Stastny to speak, demonstrating he had no issues with hewing to the master plan guidelines. "I think that it's rare that you have an opportunity to basically change the face of the city through one of these processes," Stastny said. "In this particular case, I think we are building on the work of the community and the input, some new ideas about how that part of the city could be structured. So it isn't just the creek. It's what the creek spawns as it goes out the next number of waves. So what we can expect from private development, what we can expect from connectivity going into East Austin. How we can create this kind of structure through that part of the city."

Stastny anticipated the design process starting around mid-September and encompassing three stages: selecting an initial portfolio of designers, short-listing those designers and pairing them with technical teams, then further refining that list of designers to solicit finalists, with work to show the public around May. "We [will] have what we call a 'meet your designer night' as well," Stastny promised, "where we get all of these egos up on a stage and let them have 10 minutes, 10 minutes only, to talk about their past work. But it's a lot of fun. It's very entertaining. But it also gives opportunities for citizens to come out and really get a sense of what they're about. And so it's meet your designer night, but it's also designers meet Austin."

After this introduction to Austin's planning process, we're curious what their first impression is.


We've got designs on Twitter @CityHallHustle.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

City Council, Waller Creek Master Plan, Bill Spelman

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