Peter Mullan, Waller Creek Conservancy CEO, sees the possibilities

Updated Nov 04, 2015

Before the recent diluvial rains, on a sunny and already warm morning, Peter Mullan peered down at Waller Creek from the East Sixth Street overpass.

“Most people don’t realize the tunnel is just about complete,” he said, looking down at the water. “But then a lot of people don’t come to this part of the creek right now.”

Mullan is the chief executive officer of the Waller Creek Conservancy, the private, nonprofit organization that is working in tandem with the city and spearheading the transformation of the mile-and-a-half-long stretch of the downtown creek, from Waterloo Park at Fifteenth Street to Lady Bird Lake.

The city built the Waller Creek tunnel to divert floodwaters from the creek, for decades an urban zone beset with severe flooding and erosion. The tunnel will free nearly 30 acres from the flood zone. The conservancy plans to transform the urban riparian zone into an interconnected series of art-filled parks, trails, playscapes and bridges.

Over coffee on a creekside patio outside Easy Tiger, Mullan offered a broad consideration of the project he now stewards.

Waller Creek runs below street level for several blocks beginning at about Eighth Street. And while lined with walkways, the creek’s disuse as a public space is startlingly evident on a weekday morning, when the street-level activity is mostly beer trucks making deliveries to the area’s nightclubs.

To Mullan, it’s a blank canvas.

“Waller Creek is the most exciting urban project in the country right now — it’s rare when something like this comes along,” he says. “The design of the landscape and park space are like the creation of a work of art because art can change your perspective of a place and your experience of that place.”

Art will illuminate a portion of Waller Creek next week when the conservancy launches its second iteration of “Creek Show,” a temporary installation of site-specific light art along three blocks of the creekside between East Fifth and Eighth streets for ten nights beginning Nov. 12.

Last year, “Creek Show” was a one-night happening. But after several thousand people turned out, this year the event was extended.

Among the light spectacles this year are Specht Harpman Architects’ “Volume,” a 100-foot-long illuminated waterfall along a creekside limestone wall, the water pulsing between a delicate, benign trickle of droplets and a surging cascade.

Filmmaker Luke Savisky will stage a large-scale projection under and through the East Seventh Street bridge, and passersby will interact with a live camera feed that will project and distort their image.

Mullan wasn’t around for last year’s “Creek Show.” He was hired in January — and with some fanfare, too.

For more than a decade, the native New Yorker and graduate of the Yale School of Architecture led the Friends of the High Line, the organization responsible for transforming a stretch of abandoned elevated railroad track on Manhattan’s West Side into a singular urban park and attraction. Lined by pricey condominiums and boutique hotels, the High Line draws more than 4.5 million visitors a year. Recently, the new Whitney Museum of American Art opened at the terminus of the elevated park, attracting yet more attention — and visitors.

City envisioners everywhere — including the Waller Creek Conservancy leaders — often point to the High Line and its unbridled success as an ideal.

While at the High Line, Mullan, 46, oversaw the planning, design and construction of the project, raised considerable funds and navigated a dizzying constellation of public, private and community stakeholders.

He’s charged with doing much the same in Austin. And the city, and Waller Creek, percolates with potential, he believes — but on its own terms.

“Waller Creek isn’t going to be the High Line, nor will it be the Riverwalk in San Antonio,” Mullan says.

“Because Austin didn’t develop like older industrial cities, because it doesn’t have the scars other cities have, we have the chance to apply 21st century ideas and not make the same planning mistakes other cities have.”

Mullan points to ideas such as those already on the boards for Waterloo Park, one of the first areas on which the conservancy is focusing its efforts. Plans call for the previously dusty and overlooked park to be transformed into a year-round community and event space with a band shell for concerts balanced by gardens, play structures for children — and, yes, art as well.

“People in Austin already spend a great deal of time inhabiting park space and public space. It’s already valued space here,” says Mullan. “And art can profoundly catalyze public space into a new kind of social space.”

Mullan and his wife and 8-year-old daughter opted to rent a house in the Central Austin neighborhood of Clarksville. “It’s where we felt most at home here, with its proximity to downtown,” he says.

And yet after a pedestrian- and public-transit-based lifestyle in Brooklyn, the family has nevertheless conceded to having two cars in Austin.

Says Mullan: “I had hoped to have a more walkable and transit-oriented life here, at least for myself, but that just isn’t possible — yet.”

Mullan cites his admiration for Jane Jacobs, the New York activist and author of “The Death and Life of the Great American Cities,” which in 1961 introduced a commonsense yet groundbreaking approach to urban planning. Jacobs described how the success of cities comes from the poetics of the sidewalk, a mix of people and activities.

“She described how the life of the street is so important for a city’s viability — how a street’s diversity and human scale create community. Those are the unassailable characteristics which make cities work and makes them livable,” he says.

“The public realm is where the great things happen in a city.”