Shoal Creek, flowing roughly 11 miles from its headwaters north of Highway 183 to Lady Bird Lake, is one of the two major creeks running through downtown Austin. That fact alone makes it relevant to any conversation about the peaceful coexistence of the natural and built environments in the urban core, but it doesn’t seem to grab the same headlines as its eastern twin Waller Creek, the big improvements for which we hear about constantly. Don’t both of downtown’s creeks deserve your love?
Of course they do, which is why we’re glad to dive into the Shoal Creek Conservancy’s newly-released Shoal Creek Trail Vision to Action Plan, a 122-page report outlining the organization’s plans and priorities for major improvements to the existing 3.9-mile trail along the creek — which dates back to the 1970s and is in a questionable state of repairs in many spots — along with a 9-mile extension that will eventually provide a multi-use pathway for walkers, runners, and cyclists all the way from Lady Bird Lake to the Domain and beyond. If all goes according to plan, the completed 13-mile Shoal Creek Trail will meet the existing Walnut Creek Trail on its northern end, creating a 30-mile “big loop” trail system around the city.
That’s obviously a bold vision, and this plan only represents the first step, but it’s still got a lot to dig into. We’re not going to be able to summarize all 122 pages — read it yourself, champ — but the document helpfully identifies the five highest-priority projects, the importance of which were identified with the help of the Shoal Creek Conservancy’s public engagement process over the last year or so. We’re going to run down those five priorities for you here — plus, we’ve got some pictures!
All images courtesy of the Shoal Creek Conservancy unless otherwise noted.
1. “Re-stripe Shoal Creek Boulevard, from West 38th Street to Foster Lane, to create a two-way protected bicycle lane and a wider sidewalk, where possible, within the western edge of the existing right-of-way.”
Priority one involves reconfiguring the roughly four-mile stretch of Shoal Creek Boulevard that runs north from West 38th Street to Foster Lane, which is just south of Anderson Lane. Shoal Creek is directly adjacent to the boulevard for nearly this entire stretch, and the trail at this section of the creek is routed there — so the conservancy plans to add a protected bike lane, or lanes, in this area; along with potentially widened sidewalks.
There are several possible configuration options, but the preferred design identified in the conservancy’s public engagement process would create a two-way protected bike lane on the western side of Shoal Creek Boulevard.
2. “Create and implement an Interpretive and Wayfinding Master Plan for the entire Shoal Creek Trail Corridor. The project scope should include designing and installing the wayfinding signage that links travelers to key public destinations (schools, parks, trails, transit stops, community buildings, historic sites and buildings) for the entire trail.”
This one’s kinda self-explanatory — a good trail needs good signs with consistent design to enable reliable navigation, and as a bonus, this signage could include historical context and other information about the amenities and parks located along the creek. The Trail Foundation’s working on the same thing right now, actually!
3. “Address key connectivity and safety ‘gaps’ along the route, including the crossings at the West 34th and West 38th streets, and the intersection of West 45th Street and Shoal Creek Boulevard.”
There are some dangerous crossings and poorly-lit areas of the trail, particularly between 34th and 45th Streets — not to mention a couple of stretches that pass under bridges with no lights installed at all.
To ensure 24-hour usage and safety, the conservancy plans to address each of these tricky sections, with some route modifications and lighting that simultaneously keeps the trail lit enough to navigate but isn’t so bright that it’s a distraction to people or wildlife. Ground-mounted lights that illuminate trails but don’t cast excess light upward are a potential option.
4. “Construct a West 3rd Street bicycle/pedestrian underpass; rehabilitate and re-use the historic trestle bridge as a scenic overlook/public plaza; and create another public plaza within the 3rd Street right-of-way, west of Shoal Creek, on the south side of The Independent condominiums.”
So this next part is pretty neat. You know that completely neglected wooden rail trestle right next to the Third Street pedestrian bridge, over by all the development taking place at the Seaholm / Second Street District? Austin Proper, Third and Shoal, the Independent, any of that ring a bell?
Unless you’re a frequent trail user or spend a lot of time in that district, it’s actually plausible you’ve missed the trestle until now — it’s overgrown, inaccessible, and more than a little decrepit. But it’s also one of the final remaining connections we have to the history of the railroads that made Austin a regional trade hub and rapidly increased its immigrant population, laying the groundwork for the culture and prosperity the city enjoys today.
Though the trestle’s in pretty bad shape at the moment, the conservancy sees potential in preserving this landmark as a new public space in one of the city’s most rapidly-developing corners. Commissioned by the conservancy, this design concept from local architects Limbacher and Godfrey imagines a small plaza inspired in part by the famous High Line park in New York City:
Not bad, huh? In addition to this concept, the plan also recommends creating a new shared-use underpass section for the trail passing under both the trestle and pedestrian bridge, which would be lighted and 10 to 12 feet wide.
But these two components are part of a larger vision for the stretch of the creek and its trail passing through the Seaholm District, known as the “Cypress and Shoal Focus Area” in this document. The whole plan, which involves building a series of connected public plazas through the district, is kind of hard to describe without just showing you, so here’s a couple of pages from the report that describe it better than I could. Click the image below for a larger view:
Needless to say, these plazas and other improvements would really ramp up the enjoyment factor of the Seaholm District, and it’s a pretty nice place already — with all the rapid development next door, I can see why the conservancy considers this space a high priority.
5. ”Implement the critical improvements between West 5th Street and the trail connection north of West 6th Street […] which include improving the Trail to a 10- to 14-foot wide, Urban Trail standard – as appropriate within the specific context – while increasing native landscape and wildlife habitat and improving water quality.”
This one’s pretty self-explanatory as well — widen the trail to better accommodate the shared-use demands of a dense urban environment, based on the recommendations of a preliminary engineering report issued by surveying firm Walker Partners regarding the stretch of the trail between Fifth and 15th Streets. To prevent erosion, the report encourages planting native vegetation and constructing retaining walls from natural limestone, rather than concrete, to respect the context of the trail’s surroundings.
Phew, you get all that? Now’s the part where a lot of people would probably ask how we’re going to pay for all of this. I’m a little more interested in the design than the finances of this endeavor, but the report does address this in some detail. Here’s the funding schedule for each phase of the project, showing that the five priority improvements outlined above as part of the plan’s first phase would ring up to the tune of $18 million:
Maybe writing about $100 million-plus skyscraper projects for years has left me jaded, but $66 million doesn’t actually seem like an unreasonable sum for a large public works project with such an obvious payoff — I mean, good lord, get a load of what the city’s spending on Waller Creek! Still, with three of the four phases of the project only partially funded according to this report, some of the burden of its cost will fall to the city’s philanthropic apparatus. Maybe it’s time to set up a recurring donation?