Going With the Flow

The next life of Waller Creek

(Page 2 of 2)

The Latest Vision

The creek flows through a walkway at the Hilton Garden Inn on Fifth Street.
The creek flows through a walkway at the Hilton Garden Inn on Fifth Street. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

"Waller Creek is the creek most likely to succeed at the hands of architects and city planners," wrote Joseph Jones. "In March 1980, the Austin City Council approved a contract of nearly two million dollars to improve the creek (with a hike and bike trail, landscaping, walls, tunnels, and the like) through downtown."

Thirty years later, Jones' prediction awaits completion, the only certainty being that $2 million isn't even close to enough money. Now that the tunnel is under way, momentum is growing, most recently with the selection of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates and Thomas Phifer & Partners from New York City to redesign the Waller Creek landscape. In October, people packed City Hall to hear the Waller Creek Con­serv­ancy announce the winners of its highly publicized design competition.

MVVA is best known for leading the recent Brooklyn Bridge Park redesign efforts – an 85-acre sustainable waterfront park that runs 1.3 miles along Brooklyn's East River shoreline. I visited the park this summer and was impressed by the diversity of the project, which includes playgrounds, waterfront promenades, trails, and a restored carousel housed in a distinctive Jean Nouvel pavilion – all tied together through subtle design elements. There are stunning views of the lower Manhattan skyline, including the new One World Trade Center and the Brooklyn Bridge. It's an indicator of what might be accomplished with Waller Creek.

MVVA's winning proposal, which will transform 1.5 miles of the creek, is designed along a romantically named chain of parks: the Lattice, the Grove, the Refuge, and the Confluence. In November, Austin voters authorized $13 million in bond funding, with another $17 million promised in the next few years and an ultimate price tag of $60 million. The Waller Creek Conservancy, a nonprofit formed to support the project, believes it can raise another $60 million in private donations, for something as dramatic as New York City's High Line, a long, elevated park built on a former section of Manhattan railroad.

Crisco (Photo by Ari Phillips)

"I think there is a good parallel between the projects," said Frederick Steiner, dean of the UT School of Architecture. "One is elevated and the other arguably is sunken. In a way Waller Creek kind of represents the potential of the High Line on one end and the San Antonio River Walk, a more local precedent, on other end." Steiner served on the governance board for the Waller Creek design competition. "There are several really interesting things about the winning entry," Steiner said. "First, it suggests very smart and doable interventions. Second, the string of parks acts to connect a network, but allows each of the individual parks to develop on its own. Third, the attention to the Eastside."

Most of what makes Waller Creek such a "wicked" problem (the term used in the jury report recommending the MVVA proposal) is tied into the history of Austin, specifically the historically embedded division of East vs. West. The natural division created by Waller Creek was amplified by the decision in the 1920s to officially racially segregate the city along the corridor, later reinforced by the construction of I-35, an uninviting and dangerous physical barrier. "On top of the historical context, the intermittent flooding kept the area relatively undeveloped," Steiner said. "And the city more or less turned its back on Waller Creek."

The Paradox of Meddling

"We've meddled in Waller Creek since 1839, when we settled on it," said Kevin Anderson, a researcher at Austin Water's Center for Environmental Research. "This is just part of what humans do, for better or worse."

"The paradox of meddling in these places is that the ruinous attractions get replaced by planned attractions," Anderson continued. "The proposal designs are all from well-intentioned people imposing their vision of nature on that creek. The creek itself has a much longer history, of which this is just a moment in time."

Kevin Anderson
Kevin Anderson (Photo by Ari Phillips)

For nearly a decade, Anderson has been giving talks about Joseph Jones and Waller Creek, regularly referring to his thesis, Marginal Nature: Urban Wastelands and the Geography of Nature. "The first time I did a talk on Joseph Jones, his daughter walked into the room," Anderson said, tinkering with a bolo tie that Jones made from an object he found in the creek. "Since then his two daughters have sort of adopted me. In some ways they think of me as a ghost of their father, because of some strange serendipitous connections."

In 1988, while a UT student, Anderson would often wander the creek while waiting for the bus. He regularly bumped into an old man doing the same – only later did he realize the man was Joseph Jones. By then he'd already become a devotee of Jones's writing, viewing him as a compadre who understood the creek's history and ecology. "I think for someone like Joe or myself, part of the appeal of these sorts of places is how they change," Anderson said. "The regret I have is that our cultural attitudes towards nature inhibit so many people from appreciating what's actually there. I really love the ruinous attraction of that creek, in part because I spent so much time on it and I know the snapping turtles and the wood ducks and the green herons."

Anderson sees what's happening along the creek fitting perfectly into the persistent dynamic of cities and urbanization. "I lived in New York City in the 1980s when the High Line really was spectacular, before they ripped it apart and replaced it with what they believe should be there for development. And that's what's going to happen to Waller Creek. If you take the long perspective, 100 years from now, will either be maintained?"

Naturally Unnatural

In the shadow of UT's Darrell K. Royal Texas-Memorial football stadium, I descended into Jones' territory along the creek, at the intersection of 21st and San Jacinto. The foliage was noticeably different here – less tropical, woodsier – and the flanking green space was wider. Circumnavigating the stadium regularly to get to school or work has conditioned me to sigh at its towering presence and feel a kinship with the students who, in the 1969 incident hyperbolically recalled as the "Waller Creek Riot," chained themselves to trees in protest of the stadium expansion and the felling of the trees.

The Boiling Pot patio on Sixth Street overlooks the creek.
The Boiling Pot patio on Sixth Street overlooks the creek. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

During the annual South by Southwest Eco conference last fall, I'd joined a volunteer event in which participants could pick up trash along the creek, make seed balls for planting, or map invasive species. I spent the next two hours with two Amherst College students and our guide, Jessica Strickland, invasive species program manager for the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. We documented the exact location of these unwelcome trespassers, information that would later be added to a database to be referenced when it came time to remove the plants. When we weren't straddling limestone outcroppings, we paused intermittently to admire the scenery. Cypress trees rose through streaks of sunlight, and snakelike root webs hosted turtles trying to catch a ray. Young Texas palmettos spread their fronds like green peacock tails. Behind the Alumni Center, the creek had been manicured by university landscapers – a rich mix of shrubs, bushes, and trees, invasive and indigenous alike.

We encountered a lot of privet, chinaberries, and other interlopers. While I enjoyed the taxonomic education, I didn't see much hope for an indigenous-species-only Waller Creek, and I wasn't convinced it was really worth the effort. Later I asked Anderson how he felt about the notion of invasive species, and he said he doesn't believe that there's a species-correct biological community for a city, when cities by definition completely alter natural ecology. "The natural history of the city is unnatural," he said. "So when you go down to Waller Creek and say these things shouldn't be here and these things should, what exactly are you saying?"

He thinks the focus should instead be on management of urban ecosystems, for which the concept of invasive species isn't very useful. A better term, he suggests, might be "problem species" – such as giant ragweed, bamboo, or poison ivy, each of which dominates parts of Waller Creek. "This all goes back to America's obsession with the idea that there was wilderness here, and that it was 'right' once," Anderson said. "The first question is, when was that? And the next question is, some of you want to live in the past and try to manage backwards – but how do we go forwards?"

Trash to Treasure

To complete my journey, I needed a boat and a loyal shipmate. Together we entered Lady Bird Lake just west of I-35 and made it about 100 yards up the creek, nearly reaching Palm Park, before turning around because of shallow, stagnant, putrid water. As we pivoted, I spotted a snakeskin hanging from a tree that protruded from the large, stone containment wall. Crisco?

Ducking low branches and pushing off submerged logs, we headed back toward Lady Bird Lake. Two cardinals hopped on some enormous reeds, their bright red feathers matching the kayak; together we stood out from the hearty greens and flat blue-greys surrounding us. A rotten scent hung in the low air. As we passed under a timeworn, three-foot diameter pipeline, I thought about how much sewage might be passing overhead, and then about how much might be just inches beneath us.

There are now two striking aspects at the mouth of the creek: a profusion of birds and a buoyed-off, cofferdam construction site. Cormorants lined the ring of yellow, rectangular barriers floating around the work zone; they took flight, one by one, as we approached. Egrets and great blue herons waded near the riverbank, regal with their long necks and slender heads. The planned outlet facility for the Waller Creek Tunnel, a 50-foot-deep lagoon, will one day quietly inhabit the terrain beneath this part of the lake. The brand new, modern Waller Creek Boathouse nearby is the first indication of the changes to come.

Lady Bird Lake may seem like a slow-moving mass of tranquility as old as time, especially when encountered after paddling through the dilapidated urban gutter that is lower Waller Creek. Yet it too is an artificial, man-made attraction, a dammed stretch of the Colorado River. Called Town Lake until being renamed in 2007, the six-mile lake was created in 1960 with the construction of the Longhorn Dam, to protect against flooding, generate electricity, and establish a reliable water supply. By the 1970s the lake was neglected and overgrown, much like Waller Creek today – but now wide trails, boat docks, highrise hotels and high-end apartments ring its shoreline, with a new boardwalk soon to be built to complete the trail connection between east and west. Probably more than ever, the lake has become the central artery tying Austin's disconnected neighborhoods together. The revitalization of lower Waller Creek will continue this trend of Downtown urbanization, bringing more people and activity.

Julie Holden, Joseph Jones' granddaughter, thinks the change will be a good thing. "I think it's really cool," she said. "I don't mind them turning it into a sort of river walk. I think the River Walk in San Antonio is great." Holden, a real estate agent, lives in Austin with her husband and six-year-old daughter. She believes her grandfather would "strongly approve" of the plan to revitalize the area. "He would be thrilled with people taking an interest in this beautiful natural resource that's the heart of the University of Texas campus," Holden told me. "He probably wouldn't approve of the development Downtown though – the 'River Walk' idea would bother him. But he was a balanced guy, and I expect he would feel that if it made it possible for conservancy to happen, then that would help validate it."

Holden remembers Jones as an inveterate tinkerer and master woodworker, who would utilize many of the things he found along the creek. "I have a child's rocking chair that he picked up," Holden said. "He repaired it and added cat faces on the side with a tail going up the back. Now all these years later, it's in my daughter's room. I think this whole idea – that one man's trash is another man's treasure – is very important."

Download the Waller Creek Redevelopment Plan.

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Waller Creek, Joseph Jones, Richard Linklater, Waterloo Park, development, nature, Edwin Waller, homelessness, Richard Troxell, House the Homeless, Waller Creek Conservancy, East Austin, Red River

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