The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Waterloo Park, just east of the State Capitol, is a perfect example. There used to be houses there. But then in the 1970s, recalls former city council staffer and Waller Creek Conservancy executive director Stephanie Lee McDonald, “there was a lot of urban renewal efforts and the neighborhood was razed and the park was created.”
According to newspaper articles at the time, there were big redevelopment plans for the area, which sits along Waller Creek. There were even hopes that the space could become Austin’s very own version of the famed San Antonio River Walk. Of course, things didn’t really work out that way.
“Nobody comes to Waterloo Park,” McDonald laments.
Now a new development project is afoot – which could finally make those river walk dreams come true.
The Waller Creek project begins at Waterloo Park with the construction of a rainwater retention pond and massive tunnel to shoot floodwaters into Lady Bird Lake. But, according to Lee McDonald, that’s just the beginning.
“Under dry conditions what will happen here is there’s going to be a pumping mechanism that will pump water from Lady Bird Lake through the tunnel and then recirculate it downstream … so there’s two kind of separate mechanics going on here.”
The above video was shot inside the Waller Creek tunnel, 70 feet underneath downtown Austin, at the end of August 2013. The tunnel is expected to be finished by the end of 2014.
From Waterloo Park it’s a short walk along the creek to Symphony Square at 11th Street and Red River. “I think in this section it’s really wonderful to hear the water to see the water moving,” McDonald says. “And there [it’s] starting to get some vegetation, so it collects more animal life; there’s sometimes some great birds at this section.”
As we walk, a stack of sandbags blocking a stairway to the Sheraton Hotel are a reminder of why Austin is investing around $150 million into the project. “The property can be affected by really fast storm conditions,” McDonald says. “I’ve seen the water get up really high in Symphony Square –to the top of the bridge there over Waller Creek”
The city says flood mitigation will open up about 28 acres of prime downtown real estate for development. The city held a design competition for the future of Waller Creek; a panel ultimately chose a plan envisioning a “chain of parks” for the area.
When the redevelopment happens, McDonald says her group will work to ensure that the space along the creek provides a public benefit.
Palm Park, further down the creek, is one candidate for such investment. Located just west of I-35 around Cesar Chavez Street, McDonald calls Palm the least utilized park in the city.
“But Palm Park has been re-imagined as a place for families and children with activities,” she says. “Potentially water features, and things that really encourage families and children to be here.”
But plans like these take money. Some of that could come from city bonds, grants and private donations. The wider vision for Waller Creek will also require a buy-in from developers.
At the end of the line, where Waller Creek flows into Lady Bird Lake, workers are busily working to meet the 2014 deadline for completion of the flood mitigation tunnel – and massive building projects are already in the works for the newly flood zone-free downtown lots.