Michael Van Valkenburg Associates (MVVA) and Thomas Phifer & Partners have been announced as winners of an international competition set to transform 15 blocks of the neglected Waller Creek in downtown Austin, Texas, into a vibrant local attraction. Co-sponsored by the nonprofit Waller Creek Conservancy and the City of Austin, the ambitious project intends to spearhead redevelopment within the city’s central business district with the 1.5 mile urban scheme that represents approximately 11 percent of Austin’s downtown. “Today, we glimpse a transformation of Austin through a new community gathering place. This design team selection illustrates our City’s desire for great civic space, unique culture and opportunity for interaction with nature,” Austin Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole said during the City Hall announcement. “We look forward to each new milestone of this development.”
The jury lauded Michael Van Valkenburg and Thomas Phifer & Partners’ winning scheme for it’s ability to reflect the environmental and cultural contexts of Austin, while stimulating social interaction and restoring the creek’s natural beauty. The innovative redesign will re-engage the urban core and expand a renewed Waller Creek into a Chain of Parks embedded in five connected districts: The Lattice, The Grove, The Narrows, The Refuge, and The Confluence. The Lattice: A lattice of six lightweight and easily deployable trail bridges spans the mouth of Waller Creek and forms the southernmost link of the Chain. Situated at the liminal space between Lake and Creek, the Lattice becomes a vital green link between downtown, East Austin, and the Hike and Bike Trail, and inspires an entirely new set of rituals for walking, running, biking, socializing and commuting.
The Grove: A new grove of live oaks fills a broad slope descending from street level to the creek. Locally quarried block is used as the formwork for the concrete walls lining the cut, offering shaded pedestrian coves. The Grove hosts a tremendous variety of community programs, both planned and spontaneous, including movie nights, open-air markets and outdoor exhibitions. The Narrows: At the center of the chain lies the Narrows, an area of new development along the banks of Waller Creek, enabled by the Waller Creek tunnel project’s elimination of the threat of flood. Following the cues of the Boiling Pot balcony and Easy Tiger patio, creek-facing properties may make use of new opportunities for outdoor seating, retail and art spaces within the existing architecture lining the creek. The spatial configuration of the Narrows incentivizes new development while maintaining the character of the Austin patio lifestyle. The Refuge: Presenting a unique opportunity for discovery and exploration, the Habitat Refuge – an extended 8th Street Bridge – offers a distinctive model for the way in which new urban infrastructure can sustain rather than weaken the natural environment in which it sits. The bridge pier is engineered as an “ecological machine” that treats stormwater from the roadway and adjacent development before discharging it into a wetland habitat, alluringly housed in a sculptural structure that hosts explorations of creek habitat led by local educational programs. Complementing the refuge is an island park in the creek, created by seizing the opportunity offered by the imminent relocation of the Austin Police Headquarters. A flat, commodious island created by splitting Waller Creek north of 8th Street offers year-round park activities and accommodates small planned events.
The Confluence: The chain’s final link is the Confluence. Here, the concrete vane for the tunnel approach channel is used as a structural support for a new lawn that floats out over the water, reclaiming parkland that would be otherwise lost to the tunnel project. A rebuilt 12th Street bridge creates space for a bicycle trail and pedestrian walks embedded within a cypress wetland that includes a constructed spring out of which Waller Creek flows. Seemingly floating atop the tunnel inlet structure is the Poppy, a lightweight and luminous bandshell pavilion that creates a new icon for Austin and diversifies music programming in the park. The Poppy is itself the site of confluence: a coming together of water, landscape, music and people, staking its claim as a premier center of public life of Austin.
A construction schedule is yet to be determined. However, conservancy officials expect construction will cost between $50 and $60 million. In addition, future work will complement more than $200 million in municipal infrastructure improvements either underway or planned. Reference: Waller Creek