The Past, Present, and Future of Waller and Shoal Creeks
Finally doing right by Austin's waterways
The crowd starts lining up across from Cheer Up Charlies, then rounds the corner eastward on Ninth Street, past the apartments where the ice plant used to be, and downstairs into the ditch. It's crowded, cold, and dark but for the orange aura around the steps. The glow comes from dozens of camping tents, each lit from the inside, stretched and strung over visitors' heads and reflecting into the blacked-out water.
It's a Friday evening, the penultimate night of the Waller Creek Conservancy's annual Creek Show public art event, and the thick scrum of children and grandparents and hot cocoa and selfie-shooting wends its way back north for two blocks to Symphony Square, which is now the conservancy's headquarters. This year's Creek Show installations activate a stretch of Waller (under the Austin Water headquarters, past the Sheraton that used to be a Marriott) that's long been hard-scaped, a survivor of past decades' unstable incarnations of Austin's Downtown creeks as places for people. (Including people without homes, hence the symbolism of Perkins + Will's Tentsion installation, one of six works at Creek Show.) Yet members of the crowd murmur approvingly at how "they haven't developed this."
Our city sits astride a river that is now a lake, which floods when we need it to and at no other time. But the city also sits astride many creeks that flow and flood or dry out and disappear when they need to, not on our schedule. This is what creeks do, but in many cities this behavior is viewed as a problem to be solved, either by making the creeks go away or making them static, tamed features of the landscape. Austin has tried here and there, with results that we can still see, but even with all the signs of settlement and engineering on Waller and Shoal creeks in the heart of the city, the Creek Show crowd is right – we still "haven't developed" them the way we'd like to.
Which could be a lot, or not at all, or both. Thus, the central-city creeks are on Austin's well-known to-do list of projects that have taken generations to bring to fruition (a new airport, a performing arts center, a vibrant Downtown, and so on). Now, a brace of conservancies – Waller Creek, Shoal Creek, and Pease Park – has taken shape to harness public and private resources and energies and give the creeks the same deep and three-dimensional embrace that the creeks give to the heart of Austin.
The Creek Abides
Quite early in our city's human history, proto-Austinites saw that Shoal and Waller creeks were noble and pleasant and useful and interesting neighbors, most of the time. Sure, we dumped our shit in them a lot, as when early townsmen banished the Austin abattoirs and their filth to the banks of Waller Creek. And we harnessed them for mills and ice plants and waterworks and whatnot. But from the time of the first European contact with the Tonkawa and Comanche, we are told of the creeks being used for recreation and admired for their beauty as they became the complex frontiers of a remote settlement on the edge of several nations.
Jacob Harrell's original homestead, not yet named Waterloo, nestled on the north bank of the Colorado between Waller and Shoal when he was visited by Mirabeau Lamar, who shot a buffalo, declared the spot "a seat of empire," succeeded Sam Houston as president of the Republic of Texas, named Harrell's hamlet the capitol, and made us Austin. Beyond Shoal Creek lay the Comanchería, until Lamar upended Houston's peace policies and waged war on the Comanche nation. Now, there's a Trader Joe's.
"Where the hotel Proper is now – that was the edge of the Republic," says Ted Siff, chair of the board of the Shoal Creek Conservancy, who only pretends to be old enough to have heard the origin story from Harrell himself. (He's been around a long time.) "There's so much opportunity to tell that story, as well as the story that nature tells us there. That's all incorporated in our plan, and the ink is still drying on that being complete." The conservancy's Shoal Creek Trail: Vision to Action Plan was formally presented to the city on Nov. 7.
Austin considers itself very parks-proud and parks-forward, though we're kinda middling among the major U.S. cities in terms of how much parkland we have (a little over 18 acres per 1,000 residents, below our stated goal of 23.5) and how much we spend on parks (a little over $100 per resident, more than the big Texas cities but less than Plano). From approximately the time of the Comanches, we've complained that we spend too little on parks even as we've complained that we pay too much in taxes, and so inevitably the nonprofit sector has settled into the space between our dreams and our realities. The complexity of the creeks as systems – they're parks for people, and they're trails in the mobility network, and they're public works of civil engineering and flood control, and they're habitat – gives the Waller, Shoal, and Pease groups a mandate that "goes way beyond the statement that 'PARD doesn't have enough money,'" says Siff, referring to the Austin Parks and Recreation Department.
The "conservancy" model doesn't have a real definition – in some cases and places, the term describes a land trust, but not on Shoal Creek or Waller Creek – but it signifies a more active approach to nonprofit support than just fundraising, and "collaboration" is a word that gets used a lot among these groups. "Clearly municipalities across the country are finding they can't maintain these spaces alone," says Heath Riddles, CEO of the Pease Park Conservancy. "The model is further evolved elsewhere, but it's taken hold here. How we'll be part of the solution, how we will cooperate and collaborate, is a fascinating thing to watch. Because it's the future."
Money Follows Love
Pease Park, which borders Shoal Creek, has had an approved master plan for its renewal since 2014; the conservancy emerged from the work of the grassroots nonprofit Trees for Pease, whose founder Richard Craig (now on the PPC's advisory board) raised the alarm that the park (the city's oldest, apart from the Downtown squares) "was being loved to death," in Riddles' words. After a yearslong restoration of the park's landscape and habitat, the conservancy earlier this month kicked off work on the first of multiple projects identified in the 2014 plan: Kingsbury Commons at the south end of the park (where the playscape and picnic tables are now), closest to Downtown.
That milestone was made possible by a "transformative" $9.7 million grant from the Moody Foundation, Riddles says, that "allowed us to think more aggressively and take a more ambitious first step" in implementing the plan. "We always knew our energy would be first directed to Kingsbury; that's the historic entrance, the hub of the park, spiritually. But prior to the Moody gift, our ideas were much more modest – smaller projects with multiple phases over a series of years."
The incremental approach described by Riddles is how the city of Austin often does its business, partly from the centrifugal force of activism that pushes stakeholders away from consensus visions, but often because we like things done on the cheap. It's a hard approach to take on the Downtown creeks, which aren't just passively sitting there waiting for Austin to make up its mind and throw down its wallet. "A lot of what we need to do is putting systems in place up front for successful long-term management of the creek, and creating structures for funding and performing that work," says John Rigdon, director of planning and design for the Waller Creek Conservancy.
As an example, "in Waterloo Park, we have a special events facility" – the Moody Amphitheater, again funded in part by the namesake foundation – "for which we're taking on an upfront cost and building all the needed public restrooms. We're investing now in permanent solutions that lower long-term impacts, always with an eye toward ongoing operation and maintenance that's sustainable."
Waller's future vision of parkland, trails, events, and engagement on Downtown's eastern edge (and the Eastside's western edge) comes with a $246 million price tag for capital investment, on top of the $163 million for the flood-control tunnel system that lies below the creek and that will – we hope! – prevent the devastation caused when Waller needs to do its job as a creek, which has washed out many previous projects to make it a public space.
A lot of that money will come from tax increment financing from property around Waller Creek, a bag that the conservancy secured back in May even as Mayor Steve Adler's larger "Downtown Puzzle" strategy was deferred until after his re-election. "That provided a lot of certainty on the funding side," says Rigdon, "and really demonstrated the impact of the central parks to the community." That doesn't mean Waller Creek's stewards no longer care about homelessness, affordability, the creative economy, historic preservation, or the other pieces of the "puzzle." "Parks don't exist in a vacuum," Rigdon continues. "We want to be part of creating a better and more livable city."
Big Loops, Living Systems
The Shoal Creek Conservancy is also looking at ways to connect with the philanthropic and public funding streams that are watering Waller Creek and Pease Park, such as the hotel occupancy tax, but its mandate extends beyond Downtown to the creek's entire watershed, which encompasses about 13 square miles. The new trail plan calls not only for improving the existing Shoal Creek trail, some of which dates back to the New Deal, but extending it north to the Domain and connecting it with the Walnut Creek trail, creating a "Big Loop" that connects Austin's east and west. (Waller Creek wanders north from Downtown through the UT campus and Hyde Park and peters out around 51st Street, but its proper "trail" lies within its Downtown reach where it connects to the Big Loop via the Butler Hike and Bike Trail, which has its own nonprofit support group in the Trail Foundation.)
"As our city grows, the green spaces are increasingly important to our well-being," says Joanna Wolaver, Shoal Creek Conservancy's executive director. "It's important to make sure they're well-maintained and welcoming to everyone, and it'll take partnerships to get us there. There's certainly enough need and work to go around." All the groups talk of constant coordination between SCC, PPC, WCC, the Trail Foundation, the Downtown Austin Alliance, the Austin Parks Foundation, and multiple city departments to achieve goals.
Since Shoal is much longer and quite a bit more "natural" than Waller and doesn't have a major diversion project to contain its devastating floodwaters, those goals include "a healthy, safe, and resilient creek, and not just for people," Wolaver notes. "Can your kids wade in it? How quickly can it recover from floods? It's definitely an ever-changing system."
All of the conservancies aim not to lose sight of the environmental, pre-human character of the creeks as living systems. At Waller, "our design of the channel is very rigorous and based on functional assessments of the creek's health and how to maintain it," says Rigdon. "Part of the magic of this project is getting people close to a green, healthy, functional, managed creek system. We'll be able to build a group of interested stewards."
Siff says that the Shoal Creek "watershed is an ecosystem that includes the land that feeds the creek, and what we've found is that there are public interest issues that could not be fully addressed the way the public wanted entirely by the public sector." The conservancy emerged as an anchor not only for parks people and waterways people, but also for urban-trails people, which has been a decadeslong passion for Siff. (Since 1994, our regional long-range transportation plan has included a hub-and-spoke network of creek trails, with Shoal and the Big Loop at its center.) "Nothing says citizens can't be involved in this work. In fact, citizenship demands that."
For Pease Park, the expression of that civic impulse has come where it so often does in Austin: from the immediate neighbors, who have long been interested in what happens at the park, pleasant and otherwise. "We're lucky at Pease that we talked to a lot of people before we even contemplated doing anything," says Riddles. "What they valued is the natural integrity of the park, and a sustainable landscape can look messy. That's what people love and it's a good thing. I'm pleased by the enthusiasm and passion the neighbors have for both the sustainability and the accessibility of the park. They love it, but they want to share it with the entire city."
Everybody's a Steward
To achieve the visions put forth for Shoal and Waller creeks, they'll need to be shared with the entire city and not just viewed as local amenities to be enjoyed by few and overlooked by many. (It's happened before.) Waller Creek's neighbors used to be mostly civic institutions like the police department, social services agencies, and parking lots, but the explosion of hotel and high-rise apartment buildings from Waterloo Park to Rainey Street has created a bunch of traffic and interaction between the built and natural environments, 24/7.
In prior eras, that level of daily engagement – let alone an actual crowd at Creek Show – would have been unthinkable along what then-Mayor Kirk Watson so memorably described as "a running sore." But the Waller Creek Conservancy is not satisfied. "We spend a lot of time thinking about how to make this place inclusive, not just now but in the future," says Meredith Bossin, WCC's director of engagement. "To do that we need a lot – and [an] active group – of people to think of this as their park, so they become stewards or donors or advocates. The more diverse and larger the walks of Austin life that enjoy it, the better for the future of the park."
And, perhaps, the better for the future of all of Austin's many creeks and many parks as they struggle to do their jobs in a city that will never be able to outsource or automate their functions. "That may be the most important result of the work we're doing now," says Pease Park's Riddles. "We're creating a model for others to follow. The energy and resources and awareness that we now enjoy – how can others benefit? How do we make this path easier for those who come after us, to make our green spaces more welcoming and accessible to all people in Austin? We're not the first to go down this path, but our particular experience here in Austin will be valuable."
The Waller Creek Conservancy was formed in 2010 and led the international competition to choose a designer for the 1.5-mile, 35-acre chain of parkland, eventually awarding the commission for the $246 million project to New York's Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates and Thomas Phifer & Partners. The Waller Creek vision includes five distinct sections:
• The Delta at its mouth by the Mexican American Cultural Center and Lady Bird Lake;
• A restored, revitalized, and family-friendly Palm Park;
• The "intensified urbanity" of The Narrows, where the creek is already channelized as it crosses under Sixth Street;
• A new Refuge to open up the creek/street interface at Eighth Street; and
• The reborn Waterloo Park, closed for years as the staging area of the Tunnel project and slated to reopen in 2020 as a multifunctional events venue and destination park. www.wallercreek.org
The Shoal Creek Trail: Vision to Action Plan, finalized earlier this month, envisions a trail the entire 13-mile length of the creek but identifies five priority projects: a bicycle/pedestrian underpass to connect the street and trail levels at W. Third Street; repaired "critical improvements" at W. Fifth and W. Sixth streets, where the existing trail has washed out; other gaps midtown, at 34th, 38th, and 45th streets, north of where the existing trail ends at Seiders Springs; a restriped Shoal Creek Boulevard between 38th and Foster Lane, where the road directly abuts the creek; and an "interpretive and wayfinding master plan" along the entire corridor. The larger trail vision would create the "Big Loop" by extending the Shoal Creek path under MoPac, past the Domain, and to the Walnut Creek Trail. The overall cost of implementing the plan is estimated at $66 million. www.shoalcreekconservancy.org
The 2014 Pease Park Master Plan covers both the park proper (about 43 acres) and the Shoal Creek Greenbelt up to 31st Street (another 42 acres) along a 2.1-mile stretch of the creek. The property was donated to the city for public use by former governor E.M. Pease in 1875; from south to north, the plan envisions it as distinct "rooms" or "landscape character zones" with names like Kingsbury Commons, Polecat Hollow (where the volleyball courts are), and the Big Field (home to Eeyore's Birthday Party since 1974). Total cost estimates for improvements inside the current parkland range from $15 million to $26 million, with an additional $7 million to $15 million on surrounding improvements, largely to Lamar Boulevard. www.peasepark.org