For many years, downtown Austin visionaries have talked about the potential of Waller Creek and the adjacent floodplain that runs north to south though the East end of downtown. Through a massive tunnel project, work is underway to control the creek and thus remove a contiguous 28 acres from the floodplain, essentially increasing the size of downtown Austin by 11% by allowing development for the first time ever. Now, there is talk of a San Antonio-esque river walk or a string of parks to fill this amazing new space.
To this end, a new not-for-profit, the Waller Creek Conservancy, was founded in 2010 to help steward Waller Creek by playing a vital role in the preservation, redevelopment and maintenance of the creek’s surrounding parks, nearby businesses, adjoining neighborhoods and community at large. The Conservancy was founded by Tom Meredith, former chief financial officer of Dell, Inc., Melba Whatley, who runs MDW Interests, a private oil, gas and real estate investment firm, and Melanie Barnes, a philanthropist and lawyer. (www.wallercreek.org).
This week, the Waller Creek Conservancy and the City of Austin agreed to a unique public-private partnership with the goal of creating and implementing a master plan for downtown property that will be removed from the floodplain when the Waller Creek tunnel is complete.
The city and the Conservancy have each contributed $400,000 as seed funding for the effort, which is anticipated to be a 30-year project. The Waller Creek Conservancy anticipates raising about $60 million from private donors and foundations to fund the development and design of Waller Creek. The specific amount of funds raised will depend on the chosen design.
“Our purpose, simply put, is to serve as the steward of Waller Creek,” Meredith, chairman of the Waller Creek Conservancy, said. “The only way to fulfill that goal is by playing a vital role in the preservation, maintenance and redevelopment of the creek and its surrounding parks, nearby businesses, adjoining neighborhoods and community at large.”
Ground was broken on the Waller Creek tunnel in April. “The tunnel will finally provide what the area has needed—plumbing that will solve the flooding problems that have plagued landowners for years,” Whatley, president of the Waller Creek Conservancy, said.
The 28-acre property to be master planned runs from about 15th Street down the Waller Creek watershed to Lady Bird Lake. It encompasses three existing parks—Palm, Waterloo, and Centennial—and can accommodate at least two additional parks. In addition, the property involves such diverse neighbors as: The University of Texas of Austin, the University Medical Center at Brackenridge, entertainment, housing, hospitality, business, retail, open space and recreational spaces. Much of the property is currently undeveloped because of the severe flooding issues.
“We have an opportunity to create a space for Austin that won’t come along again in our lifetimes,” Whatley said. Whatley said the Waller Creek Conservancy would work on and help fund such issues as financing, design and planning and implementation.
The Conservancy will work closely with the City of Austin to enact policies that support the implementation of a master plan while simultaneously launching an aggressive fundraising plan to finance the rehabilitation of the creek, three public parks and other public amenities.
“An important thing to note is while we’re embarking on something Austin has yet to do on this scale, we’re not reinventing the wheel,” Barnes, secretary and treasurer of Waller Creek Conservancy, said. “We’ve carefully studied other conservancies that oversee places such as Central Park in New York, Millennium Park in Chicago and Discovery Green in Houston—and are using their success as a template for how we can accomplish similar objectives here in Austin.”
The Conservancy will launch an international design competition in September to solicit concepts from teams of landscape architects, architects and artist. The competition, spearheaded by Portland, Oregon, architect Donald J. Stastny, FAIA FAICP FCIP, will assemble a jury of design professionals to narrow the field of entries to about eight contenders by November. The jury will then select approximately four finalists to be announced in December, and the winner will be announced in May 2012.
The Waller Creek tunnel is a $146.7-million project that has been 30 years in the planning. When it is completed in 2014, it will funnel floodwaters into Lady Bird Lake, freeing up about 11 percent of downtown Austin from the floodplain.