Michael Van Valkenburgh on Austin’s Waller Creek

The New York City landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh is playing a prominent role in redefining urban spaces throughout the country with active and engaging parks. He spoke about the winning proposal for Waller Creek that his firm developed in conjunction with Thomas Phifer and Partners. Austin is a city of many parks; the revitalization of Waller Creek will be a welcome contribution to a community that cherishes green space and water.

What attracted your team to the Waller Creek competition?

Several things, including the creative vibrancy of Austin as a city, the uniqueness of the assignment (especially the implications of the tunnel project and its impact on the creek hydrology), the fact that Austin still needs the equivalent of a Central Park (and that Waller Creek seems to provide the best opportunity for this). Also, Don Stastny runs a good competition and works hard to assure fairness. Last and most important, the impressive organization that is the Waller Creek Conservancy — great projects have great clients.

Can you tell us a little bit about the inspiration for each of the proposed elements of Waller Creek?

The Lattice draws its inspiration from Lady Bird Lake and the trails that surround it — it is arguably the civic heart of Austin. However, we found the current pedestrian and cyclist experience of Lady Bird Lake at Waller Creek more disorienting than fulfilling. It’s critical in the early years of the project to connect Waller Creek to the vibrant life of activity that’s already around the lake. The lightweight bridges across Waller Creek at the Lattice are incubators of urban activity above the creek mouth— or terrarium. The importance of access, seeing, and being seen cannot be underestimated in urban spaces like Waller Creek to reinforce a sense of safety and foster east-west connectivity.

The concept for the Grove began with the idea of taking down the side channels and completely re-grading the two creek edges to allow universal access. We want Waller Creek to become a crossroads for east and west Austin. By creating sloping parkland on each side, we invite citizens to not only use the parks as a destination, but also to use them as pathways from east to west — with Waller Creek becoming the symbolic place of connection.

For the Narrows, between 4th and 7th Streets, we were inspired by the observation that so much of the joy of going out in Austin is about outdoor socializing. Following the cues of outdoor gathering places along the creek like Easy Tiger — as well as informal patio spaces around the city — creek-facing properties can discover new sites to opportunistically connect outdoor seating, retail, and art spaces within existing architecture. We hope this will incentivize new development in this part of the creek that already has a certain urban density, while maintaining the character of the Austin patio.

Throughout the creek corridor, we found inspiration in existing urban adjacencies and thinking of ways to capitalize on this activity. The Refuge was inspired, on the one hand, by the vibrant Red River music scene to the west. We are hoping it can become a place for concertgoers to congregate and people-watch before events. Moreover, during the day, we saw an opportunity to create a park at creek-level for environmental education.

In recent years, Waterloo Park has become a place with a single function. Its dusty lawns are filled with visitors during large festivals, but it is otherwise abandoned for the rest of the year. It is not one of the beloved, low-key “greenbelt” parks such as Zilker Park, nor is it a recognizable “urban” park, such as Republic Square. The Confluence at Waterloo Park is the place where we saw an opportunity in the ongoing tunnel project for massive infrastructural change to be leveraged as a place for water, music, nature, and people to come together.

Talk briefly about the design for the Poppy Pavilion.

The Poppy is intended to serve as performance-gathering space and be an icon for Waller Creek. Its form is suggestive of a Texas wildflower from a distance, and becomes more abstract and cloud-like from within. The thin steel polished columns and ever-changing color of the translucent “shell” canopy structure were inspired by the clouds and rains of the Texas foothills.

How do you see the project unfolding?  

Our scheme is directly responsive to the ways in which the tunnel project becomes physically manifest in the creek. In fact, the three inlets and the outlet structure at Lady Bird Lake structure the idea of a “Chain of Parks” for us. Since the tunnel is being built now, the first step is to try and catch up to that process, and to do what is possible to connect and adapt the ideas hatched in our initial competition entry to the many  projects around Waller Creek that are now in process. We will also work closely with the Conservancy and the City to develop a phasing plan and general cost estimate. We certainly do not have any pre-assumptions that what was drawn up as part of the competition will be exactly what is executed – cities (especially cities growing as fast as Austin) are far too complex for the project to unfold in that way.

Tell us about the proposal’s considerations for droughts and how this might influence the design concept.

The tunnel project is an unusual opportunity for Waller Creek. While its purpose is to mitigate the destructive impacts of flooding in the corridor, it also provides a constant flow of water to the creek throughout the year. In terms of planting and habitat within the channel itself, Waller Creek may not be as susceptible to the effects of the severe droughts that have occurred in the region over the last few years. That said, responsible water management will always be a priority, especially for the upland park areas that abut the creek. As we develop a planting palette, we will be carefully considering drought-tolerant and native species appropriate to urban park program, as well as available and anticipated maintenance needs. For example, we have worked on several projects where different kinds of lawn seed mixes can be calibrated for anticipated frequency of use and available resources for care and maintenance.

Can you describe an element of a similar project that you are very happy with and why you think it is successful?

Right off the bat, the stone wall in Teardrop Park in New York City comes to mind. It is certainly a first cousin of our proposal for the walls of the Grove, and I think it has become a much-loved part of downtown New York City. However, for the Grove, we imagine something quite different materially. In the competition entry, we proposed that the wall would be cast out of concrete with limestone forms. This means not building the walls out of limestone, per se, though this is still a preliminary idea. We also see the vertical configuration of the wall as a means to create a shaded and perhaps even moist microclimate to provide respite in Austin’s hot summer days.

Published in Texas Architect, January/February 2013