Up a Creek

Up a Creek

Michael Van Valkenburgh’s winning entry to revitalize Waller Creek.
Courtesy MVVA

Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates and Thomas Phifer have won an international design competition to revitalize Waller Creek in Austin, Texas. Michael Van Valkenburgh’s team was crowned victor among finalists that included Workshop: Ken Smith + Rogers Marvel Architects + Ten Eyck, CMG + Public Architecture and Turenscape + Lake|Flato Architects. The design aims to revitalize a one-and-a-half mile stretch of the riparian corridor connecting the University of Texas at Austin with the downtown district.

Another view of MVVA’s winning entry.
Courtesy MVVA

Waller Creek is a thin, urban riparian ecosystem that meanders for seven miles from the northern part of the city southward through the University of Texas at Austin campus, eventually meeting Lady Bird Lake. Over the years, much of the creek has suffered from erosion, invasive species, and pollution. The competition sought to expose these conditions and invite leading professionals to re-envision the area as a vibrant, livable, workable district. In conjunction with the City of Austin, the Waller Creek Conservancy has led the charge to transform this unsightly swath of urban decay into a connected oasis.

“This project is far too complex to resolve with a single sweeping design gesture, or by simplifying the creek to an idealized prior condition,” principal Michael Van Valkenburgh said in a statement. He added: “We seek to create an exciting and humane landscape that will be critical to great city life in Austin.”

For the design proposal, Waller Creek will act as a chain of mini-parks with four main concentrations: the Confluence, the Refuge, the Grove, and the Lattice. The Confluence, currently Waterloo Park, will primarily serve as a space for social gatherings and will be the setting for “the Poppy,” a lightweight pavilion. The Refuge and the Grove will highlight much of the area’s well-known live oak trees and limestone geology as well as open up a flexible program regime. The Lattice will feature six trail bridges traversing Waller Creek until the point where it flows into Lady Bird Creek.

Proposal by Turenscape + Lake|Flato Architects.
Courtesy Turenscape

Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) aims to bring its signature urbanistic approach to landscape that is unique to the location. “MVVA will seize this moment to create a place that is provocative, yet essentially Austinian 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 reshape the city’s evolving identity,” Van Valkenburgh said in a statement.

Stephanie Lee McDonald, the executive director of the Waller Creek Conservancy, said she is enthusiastic about the decision. “The final proposals were very strong, but MVVA and Thomas Phifer were balanced,” McDonald said, calling the project one of “ecological restoration, restoring people as well as the environment with places to connect and engage with social activity.” The Conservancy predicts a necessary construction budget of $50 million to $60 million. Group members will now embark on a feasibility study and cost analysis to determine a more complete budget. They expect the study to be completed by next year. However, McDonald predicts total costs of well over $100 million. She added: “These guys aren’t cheap.”