Waller Creek Design Competition, CMG and Public Architecture

A competition jury in Austin is considering four very different design approaches to transform a 1.5-mile stretch of derelict urban parkland. The finalists’ conceptual plans for the riparian linear park, which meanders through the downtown, represent the middle phase of an international competition targeting the blighted banks of Waller Creek. An announcement is expected on October 18 to name the winning team of landscape architects partnered with an architecture firm. The selected team’s design will be the capstone for a massive public works project expected to spur dramatic redevelopment of 15 blocks in the central business district.

All four schemes, presented to the jury earlier this month during a public event at Austin City Hall, share the common attributes of lush creekside plantings, accessible open spaces, and networks of bike paths and pedestrian trails. But otherwise, they range widely in formal expression and user experience: CMG and Public Architecture insert arts programming within an underused public park and add boardwalks that zig-zag over a water feature; Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates and Thomas Phifer & Partners span the creek with several lightweight bridges and reconnect the urban core with a neighborhood stranded on the opposite side of an expressway; Workshop: Ken Smith Landscape Architect, Ten Eyck Landscape Architects, and Rogers Marvel Architects emphasize the contrast between unbridled “wild” nature snaking through an urban landscape of high-rises; and Turenscape and Lake/Flato Architects envision clusters of mixed-use buildings linked by a “ribbon” sidewalk bordered by cypress trees along the waterway.

While the five jurors were reported to have agreed on a winning team shortly after the event, their comments following the presentations did not reveal a favorite. (A governance group comprised of conservancy leaders and other local officials will vet their recommendation.) “The jury was very impressed with both the range of strategic options presented to us, and the rigor and depth by which those options were resolved. There were no lemons in this bunch,” says alternate juror Allan W. Shearer, an assistant professor of landscape architecture at the University of Texas at Austin. He added that competition guidelines called for realistic strategies that responded to the unique aspects of Austin’s culture and ecology, while investigating new models for landscape architecture and urban design; the winning scheme “had to be perfect for Austin in a way that would transcend Austin,” says Shearer.

The four teams’ presentations to a standing-room-only crowd elicited much excitement among the local design community and others eager to see improvements along the flood-prone urban corridor. Finalists each received a $100,000 honorarium to prepare their schemes. The nonprofit Waller Creek Conservancy and the City of Austin co-sponsored the design competition. They retained Donald J. Stastny, architect and noted competition manager of the National Mall Design Competition and others, to direct the process. Although no schedule is set for groundbreaking, conservancy officials expect construction will cost between $50 and $60 million and will take place in phases over many years. The work will complement more than $200 million in municipal infrastructure improvements either underway or planned.