If you’ve been in Austin for an extended period of time, you’ve likely heard of Waller Creek – it falls in line with those natural Austin landmarks whose names instantly ring a bell in your mind. Ask an Austinite to place Waller Creek geographically, however, and you’ll get more blank stares than hints of recognition.
The Waller Creek Conservancy created the Design Waller Creek competition to encourage worldwide design talent to bring their skills to Austin.
To many, the entirety of Waller Creek can be found between Cesar Chavez and 6th Street, hidden between historic restaurants, the convention center, and other recognizable downtown destinations. But in reality, that’s only a small portion of the full creek.
It actually starts near the intersection of Koenig and Airport and winds through downtown Austin, ultimately flowing into Lady Bird Lake – 1.5 miles total.
Chances are, you’ve passed by Waller Creek dozens of times without a wayward glance. A history of flooding and poor maintenance turned this Austin waterway from a once beautiful creek to an oft-ignored blight on the city. But the creek, which snakes through several key downtown areas and connects multiple city parks, had such potential that it eventually came time for the city to make improvements. Evidence of past (and failed) improvement attempts, though, proved that the city needed a partner — one who would truly invest in the wellbeing of Waller Creek.
In 2010, the newly formed Waller Creek Conservancy (WCC) became that partner. Formed by local philanthropic and business leaders Melba Whatley, Tom Meredith and Melanie Barnes, the WCC was a way for Waller Creek supporters to take previous improvement attempts to the next level by overseeing the creek’s redesign and repair.
An “ecological machine” engineered to treat storm water before discharging it into a wetland habitat, The Refuge is an example of urban infrastructure that can actually benefit the natural environment on which it sits.
Designed to resemble an open-air “room,” the Grove offers an area of serenity. Its flowing concrete walls and grove of live oak trees offer a destination for community programs and relaxation.
The Workshop design team proposed to keep Waller wild by mixing wilderness and wildlife along new bridges and expanded sidewalks.
Turnscape and Lake | Flato Architects designed the new Waller Creek as a modern oasis with a Cypress Walk along the bottom of the Creek.
CMG and Public Architecture re-imagined Palm Park into a cityscape promenade that would connect the new district to four other public spaces or neighborhoods.
A modern pedestrian bridge spanning the mouth of Waller Creek that will give those traversing its path a spectacular view both across and below the network of bridges.
In 2011, they created the Design Waller Creek competition to encourage worldwide design talent to bring their skills to Austin and provide complete transparency throughout the process – a formidable undertaking given the expansiveness of the project. While the conservancy wanted to oversee the competition completely, they knew that the board couldn’t ultimately be responsible for the decisions within it; a project of this magnitude would require a great deal of attention to detail at every turn. Christopher Sanders, founder and principal architect of the Austin-based firm Sanders Architecture, is one of those board members, and was present for a large part of Design Waller Creek (he joined the board in late 2012). According to Sanders, “Competitions aren’t commonplace in the U.S. for city improvements, so it gets people excited. It also means that awareness and transparency are the most important aspects of the competition.”
“Competitions aren’t commonplace in the U.S. for city improvements, so it gets people excited.”
– Christopher Sanders, Founder and Principle Architect, Sanders Architecture
To help ensure fairness, an outside competition manager was hired to oversee the deciding jury, as well as see to it that each team followed the rules, which were laid out in a hefty competition guidebook.
The initial competition invitation was issued in November 2011, and 31 teams from all around the world responded, including the U.S., China and Sweden. Each team, led by a landscape architect, submitted an application listing its qualifications. From there, the jury selected nine teams to move on to Phase II of the competition.
In Phase II, each team lead was asked to assemble his or her architects, civil engineers, botanists, and other participants to better express what the group had to offer. At this point, the nine teams were introduced to the public, and the final four were chosen to continue.
Those teams – CMG and Public Architecture; Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc. and Thomas Phifer & Partners; Turenscape + Lake | Flato Architects; and Ken Smith Landscape Architect, Ten Eyck Landscape Architects, and Rogers Marvel Architects – worked tirelessly to create proposals detailing their elaborate Waller Creek improvement plans. Comprehensive campaign books filled with page after page of minute details on everything from budget to plant inventory to timeline were submitted, along with design boards that brought to life the intricacies of their imagined improvements.
In the end, the final team was selected: Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc. and Thomas Phifer & Partners (MVVA).
“The jury explained the selection quite well,” Sanders says. “[MVVA] did a great job of balancing the urban fabric with the natural landscape, and then also went into detail on embracing the existing infrastructure and rolling that into their plan.”
According to Sanders and the jury, MVVA provided a comprehensive, beautiful and well-thought-out solution, and as a result, they say, MVVA’s design completely transforms the creek into something majestic and inviting.
As for its design philosophy, the winning team explains, “This project is far too complex to resolve with single sweeping design gesture or by simplifying the creek to an idealized prior condition.” Instead, MVVA aimed to “seize the moment to create a place that is provocative, yet essentially Austin in spirit by unleashing the dynamic beauty of a reinvented water course and infusing it with the right mix of economic and social attractors that will shape the city’s evolving identity.”
In plainer terms, the reimagining translates to a chain of parks, each given a unique look and identity that differentiates it from its connecting parks while still complementing the Waller Creek area as a whole.
Another important component of MVVA’s design was its ability to incorporate the city’s existing design improvements, like the Waller Creek storm tunnel and inlet structure at Waterloo Park, designed to capture and distribute rainwater to help prevent future flooding of the creek.
Now that the Design Waller Creek competition has wrapped, the winning team can begin bringing their vision to life… but where to start?
“We’re working with our partner, the City, on a phased plan that will evolve over a number of years,” Sanders says. “The city designers as well as those within the Conservancy are working to balance construction schedule with potential budget.”
The MVVA design team, in partnership with the City of Austin and the Waller Creek Conservancy, has just kicked off the first official phase plan, with members of the design team visiting monthly to assess the health of the creek and to plan the trail infrastructure that will connect all five of the parks conceived of in the overall vision for the corridor – providing pedestrian and bike paths from Lady Bird Lake all the way up to the Universtiy of Texas. This first phase – which also includes stream bank stabilization and the eradication of invasive species within the creek – is estimated to be complete by mid-2015, according to Waller Creek Conservancy Director of Programs, Meredith Bossin.
The Lattice will be the first of the five park spaces that the team will implement – working in conjunction with the new Waller Park Place development in the Rainey Street area. The team plans to improve each park in the Waller Creek district, piece by piece, over the next 10-15 years when the entire transformation is expected to come to fruition.
It’s a lengthy process, but one that Sanders feels will ultimately restore the once beloved creek and bring it to the front of Austinite’s consciousness.
“An important part of this competition was to build awareness and engagement about what’s going on at Waller Creek,” says Sanders. “[Design Waller Creek] became a thread throughout the community.”
And once MVVA’s revitalization is complete, Waller Creek can finally become the kind of landmark it was always meant to be – a reinvigorated and unmistakable component of Austin’s outdoor culture.
Images provided by City of Austin, Waller Creek Conservancy, and Michael Van Valkenburg Associates, Inc.
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