Austin’s new Waterloo Park is set to open on August 14. Both futuristic and familiar, it hopes, through a carefully calculated sequence of scenes, to bring humans and nature together for mutual enrichment.
“ …get up parks, gardens, music, dancing schools, reunions, which will be so attractive as to force into contact the good & bad, the gentlemanly and rowdy.” — Frederick Law Olmsted, letter to Charles Brace, c. 1854
“Instead of going up the wall I go down to the Creek.” — Joseph Jones, “Life on Waller Creek,” 1982
Some parts of the new Waterloo Park look like they’ve always been here. Look north from the 14th Street bridge and you might see a turtle sunning itself on a half-submerged stump, a blue heron launching into flight past the spreading canopy of a live oak tree, a monarch butterfly landing on a caliche block. But turn around and you’ll see something new: a perfect green curve of lawn cantilevered over the creek bed and a gridded cloud of white steel floating under the pink dome of the Capitol.
The park, in planning (in its current iteration) since 2010 and under construction since 2018, is a feat — not just for the planning, coordination, and effort involved in turning a trash-festooned, flood-prone tangle of urban creek into a welcoming habitat for both turtles and humans; not just because the team made that effort look easy; but also because the resulting park draws on different eras and experiences of Austin to suggest something that’s both familiar and refreshingly, optimistically new.
Gullivar Shepard, associate principal at Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), calls that something the “new wild,” adding: “The idea is loosely formed right now but is rooted in learning, almost anecdotally, from the moments around the world where nature and humans have flourished together. Yes, that does exist.”
But not, historically, at Waller Creek. Wending from north Austin past the UT campus and through downtown before spilling out into Lady Bird Lake, the creek has been subject to periodic flooding, making creekside development risky. As downtown turned its back on the creek, it became a dumping ground for trash and a last-resort shelter for people.
The completion of a floodwater bypass tunnel in 2014 mitigated the flood risk. Funding for the Waller Creek Tunnel came from tax increment financing based on the projected growth and improvements resulting from removing some 10 percent of downtown Austin from the floodplain. In theory, says John Rigdon, director of planning and design at the Waterloo Greenway Conservancy, the city could have completed the tunnel and done no additional improvements, but community members, including then-councilwoman Sheryl Cole, wanted more. “She said, ‘We’re going to have to develop community benefits on the surface; it’s not all for private development.’”
That was the impetus for the Conservancy, which was founded in 2010 by board members (and familiar names in design-focused philanthropy) Melba Whatley, Hon. TxA; Melanie Barnes; and Tom Meredith. The Conservancy put out a call for proposals for the redesign of the creek, selecting a proposal from MVVA/Thomas Phifer that addresses the 1.5-mile stretch of Waller Creek from 15th Street down to Lady Bird Lake as four separate phases. Waterloo Park is the first phase; the second, known as the Creek Delta, will begin construction next year. The entire project is slated to be completed in 2026.
MVVA’s first move was to essentially reinvent the natural state of the creek. To do that, they shifted the design of the flood bypass tunnel to create what Shepard calls a “cyborg creek.” As originally designed, says Shepard, “the pumps would run continuously at a more even rate, creating conditions where a native plant community might not thrive and invasive species could flourish. Now, after close work with Austin’s Watershed Protection Department, the tunnel system aims to artificially create dry downs and inundation cycles mirroring a healthy Texas creek in order to best stimulate a healthy biotic system.”
With that infrastructure in place, the team turned its attention to Waterloo Park, located at the top of that 1.5-mile stretch of creek. While well-used during festivals like Fun Fun Fun Fest, the park was otherwise less than welcoming with its balding lawn and dark restroom building squatting under beautiful live oaks. Again, the board wanted something better. They wanted activation and inclusion.
Activation is perhaps best illustrated by the Moody Amphitheater, the aforementioned cloud of white steel floating just under the pink dome of the Capitol (the height of the building is determined in part by Capitol view corridor guidelines). Designed by Thomas Phifer and Partners, the amphitheater will host large touring acts and community events of all sizes; between events, it casts dappled shade that mimics that cast by the neighboring live oak trees. In fact, it may be more tree than cloud: Concealed in all that steel is a network of lights, drainpipes, and sprinklers, along with quite a few birds. “That was an unexpected pleasure,” says Kathy Miller, interim CEO of the Conservancy, not entirely ironically. “We’ll have to keep an eye out, but it’s also very appropriate for an urban reuse project that manmade structures are also becoming habitats for the wildlife.”
A heavy concrete base hides permanent concession and restroom areas for events as well as backstage and VIP areas. No more muddy mosh pits, no more dust bowls, as the grass, too, hides infrastructure. The soil is engineered for drainage. Rainwater and spilled beer are collected underground in a cistern and pumped to a series of three raingardens at the southwest corner of the site, where they are filtered before returning to the creek. It’s also built to withstand impact from dancing feet, furniture, and weather. Impact on the rest of the park is also limited, as a third of the park will be closed during concerts and other events.
Likewise, inclusion is illustrated by the circulation through the park. The term “accessible ramp,” though technically accurate, is insufficient to describe the skywalk, a serpentine curve that gently transports park-goers over 50 feet of grade change, under broad-reaching live oaks, and past the viewing area for the inlet facility. The ramp is the primary circulation path. A slower, shaded secondary path, made of pervious paving for drainage, connects to seating areas and to smaller event spaces like the Lebermann Plaza. A stone scramble lit by firefly bollards leads adventurous park-goers up a rocky incline; elsewhere, play elements made of natural materials — a wooden climbing structure, a concrete slide — offer a starting point to engage with and explore the rest of the site.
The Family Pavilion, designed by Michael Hsu Office of Architecture, was initially conceived of as a restaurant, but, in an example of how the project has evolved over time, it is now a restroom and storage facility. “We investigated a cafe,” says Michael Hsu, FAIA, but “after asking ourselves who the users are, who the audience is going to be, are we really feeding everyone by doing this? — this was a better answer in a lot of ways.” For many park-goers, especially families with kids, a restaurant was less important than welcoming restrooms. Hsu’s office designed a concrete structure that evokes Texas rock outcroppings and watering holes. Sunlight and fig ivy pattern a wall behind a huge concrete sink. The goal, Hsu says, was not just to provide the facilities, but “to make it a memorable, almost emotional experience. Everything is about play and experience, even washing your hands.” Instead of a restaurant, there will now be food trailers. In addition to being a symbol of Austin, the team decided, food trailers would make the park more accessible to both park-goers and to local food vendors.
The picturesque tradition of Frederick Law Olmsted held that putting humans into natural landscapes, however contrived, would have a salutary effect. MVVA works solidly within that tradition. Says Shepard: “The quiet and delicate beauty of a Texas creek will impact people’s sense of wellness and offer the simple pleasure of appreciating, monitoring, and caring for a natural environment while walking through what will be the most congested area of downtown Austin.” The stump, the heron, the caliche block, the butterfly — these are all part of the new wild, an ecological system not so much restored as painstakingly reinvented with the help of a network of experts including soil scientists, arborists, and plant experts from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.
“What you’re seeing here on the surface is great,” says Eric Schultz, managing principal at Austin landscape architecture firm dwg., a local partner on the project, “but probably 50 percent of the work is under the ground.” The caliche blocks that help to stabilize the bank will crumble, allowing plants and habitats to get established. Stumps and logs salvaged from the site are anchored into the walls; they provide great habitat for turtles and other wildlife, says Rigdon, and they won’t come crashing downstream during a storm. The materials and techniques developed for this first section of the creek form a kind of toolkit for subsequent phases of creek restoration. “You’re seeing Chapter Three of a much longer book,” Schultz says.
This approach seems to create networks. Of the eight mature live oak trees on site, for instance, four were unexpected gifts from other construction sites. The largest, a 42-in-diameter heritage live oak, was brought over from the Capitol Complex on North Congress. Schultz says: “It was rolled down the street on something like a space shuttle roller, with all of these wheels. They lifted up the telephone lines.” Rigdon describes this as “one of those unique moments where there’s a partnership between nonprofit, developer, state, city — in order to save these trees.” For the park, the full-sized trees were a great asset, providing not just shade but a sense of permanence. “When people come to the park, they’re not going to know that tree came from a few blocks away,” Schultz says. ”They’re going to think it’s always been there.”
Another example of collaboration is in the cantilevered lawn, perhaps the most futuristic element of the park. “It’s basically a highway bridge,” says Rigdon of the structure, but it looks more like something from “Star Trek” (specifically, from one of those highly-evolved, peaceful planets whose inhabitants wear linen caftans — but happily, there is no dress code at this park). The inlet facility, which diverts both floodwater and trash out of the creek, was constructed before the park was designed. However, the designers realized that a lawn big enough for concerts would need to extend out over the creek, so they again worked with the tunnel designers to incorporate sleeves to hold future supports.
But probably the most significant collaborations are invisible. While Waterloo Park is considered a city park, it has its own programming and fundraising teams and will use paid events like concerts and weddings to help pay for free programs. “Parks are all about people,” says Kathy Miller. The park offers many different sizes and types of spaces that can be programmed, “so it adds capacity for community organizations who haven’t had a space to do their kids’ camp or their light opera shows for 100 people,” she says. “This is a place where we can partner with them. We can help fundraise so those organizations can bring this park to life in the way that best suits them.”
When the Conservancy was first founded, they brought in Peter Mullan, former executive vice president of Friends of the High Line, as the CEO (as the Conservancy moves from planning to operations, the search for a new CEO is underway; Mullan is now chief of architecture and urban design at the Austin Transit Partnership). Initially, the High Line was an easy reference point for Waterloo Greenway, an example of existing urban infrastructure being reinvented for new uses. (The Conservancy, like the creek, was initially called Waller Creek; they rebranded in 2019, at Mullan’s suggestion, to focus less on the creek and more on Austin. Waterloo, in addition to being the name of the park, is an early name of Austin.) Now, the team seems to resist those comparisons, maybe because the project is, in fact, very different, and maybe to distance this project from the concerns that the High Line was responsible for the gentrification of the surrounding neighborhood. Gentrification is not really the issue here, Miller says. “Austin has been growing at an exponential rate for years. I think preserving this open space to be accessible to everyone, with lots of free programming, is actually a way to mitigate the exorbitant prices of things in Austin. This park is going to add tremendous value across the board, not just in terms of dollars.”
The impact of the park is yet to be seen, but as a whole, it suggests an optimistic direction for Austin’s growth. “Parks aren’t really good tools for social engineering,” Shepard says, “but they can catalyze policy actions. Inclusive public spaces prevent a host of cultural issues from continuing to hide out of sight.” As downtown Austin grows, as people are cleared out of the tunnels and the skyline around the park fills with hospital and residential towers (it is currently mostly surrounded by structured parking), Waterloo Park, ideally, will offer an example of how humans can coexist both with nature and with each other.
Jessie Temple is an architect and writer in Austin.