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Waller Creek Op-Ed in Statesman

Melba Whatley posed some tough questions to the residents of Austin in the Statesman today as part of an op-ed piece titled “Waller Creek will gain from partnership project.”  The entire article is included below:

Whatley: Waller Creek will gain from partnership project

Melba Whatley, Local Contributor

Published: 7:13 p.m. Thursday, May 31, 2012

Last week the Waller Creek Conservancy’s international design competition entered its final phase. All summer, the four final teams will be designing the area surrounding downtown Austin’s Waller Creek.

By mid-October the jury will select one winner.

So what has this singular public-private partnership between the City of Austin and the Conservancy achieved so far?

■ We impaneled an impartial jury of nationally recognized experts in design, ecology and economic development to judge the competition.

■ We initially produced 31 teams presenting the best design minds locally, nationally and internationally.

■ We built a new capacity in Austin for great design, engaged local firms in the process and set a new standard.

■ We organized our superb city staff into a Technical Advisory Group to advise the competitors on regulatory and technical aspects. We have assured that our precious Waller Creek can be transformed by great design into a cherished public space for us, our children and our grandchildren.

■ We have set the stage. But will the play go on?

Will this neglected and abused urban creek really be transformed?

Will this city with great karma but a mixed record in creating great public spaces rise to the occasion?

Will a city with a habit of planning — but not implementing — act? Will the chronic and severe underfunding of our parks continue?

Will we be written off as only a typical private developers’ opportunity? Does it matter?

It matters.

Would a typical private developer design a cohesive and integrated 1 1/2-mile artery embodying 10 design principles developed over a three-year period and approved by relevant city commissions?

Would a developer field a team of the most highly skilled professionals in hydrology, stream bank restoration, native plants, sustainability, public engagement and other critical disciplines? Would a developer honor the mandates we’ve given the design teams — for example, a requirement to make Palm Park a compelling park for families and children? Treat Waterloo Park as glue for the emerging medical school and the repurposing of the state garages along Trinity Street? Take into account both walkers and bikers? Restore the creek’s ecology? Make this project work during our hottest days? Help imagine and plan for the many accessible public uses citizens will enjoy in Waller Creek? Reconnect East and West Austin?

The obvious answer is no. And can the city maintain this dream if it’s realized? In the 2009 Downtown Austin Plan Parks and Open Space and Master Plan, the city allocated $6,200 per acre for operations and maintenance of Waller Creek. In comparison, the national average for signature parks is $188,000. These numbers are not encouraging, especially considering the potential economic leverage.

For every dollar that is invested in public space, there is an average return of $4 to $7.

Melanie Barnes, Tom Meredith and I formed the Waller Creek Conservancy to make sure that exceptional designers plan Waller Creek to benefit the entire city and the city will have help maintaining it. Following the model of conservancies nationally, we will partner with developers and the city to do what each of us does best based on an abiding principle that great public spaces demand great design.

We can be certain of only one thing. In 2014, when our investment in a $147 million tunnel is complete, the surface of Waller Creek will look exactly as it does today.

What happens now will determine the fate of this partnership. Will the Austin City Council include enough bond money in this election to build out the basic infrastructure of Waller Creek? Will you, the citizens, pass those bonds? Will you join the Conservancy by becoming charter members at www. Will this model of the nonprofit Waller Creek Conservancy, in partnership with the city, implement the winning design?

You, the citizens and our elected officials, will choose.

Whatley is president of the Waller Creek Conservancy.
Waller Creek Conservancy

To join the group’s efforts as a charter member, visit