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Tom Meredith and the future of Waller Creek

Michael Barnes, Out & About

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Where others see puddles of slime, patches of asphalt pocked with industrial residue and broken, errant stones from forgotten civic projects, Tom Meredith envisions open spaces landscaped with indigenous plants, artfully placed towers for residents and visitors, renovated historic structures, a thriving entertainment district and the vital intersection of health, eduction and state government along lower Waller Creek.

Along with Melba Whatley and Melanie Barnes, Meredith is a founding board member of the Waller Creek Conservancy, which has raised $800,000 to date — half of that privately — for a competition to design the borders of the creek where Edwin Waller, Austin's first mayor, planted his expeditionary hunting camp.

On Monday, nine semifinalists will be announced, culled from 31 top design firms from around the world. The design competition and a study determining construction expenses should cost $1.5 million, Meredith says, by the time it is completed in October.

Based on preliminary estimates, Meredith guesses it will cost $60 million to $75 million to execute the eventual creekside plan, that on top of the $146.5 million the city and county are spending on the flood-averting tunnel that makes it all possible.

I recently walked part of Waller Creek with Tom Meredith and his wife, Lynn Meredith. We picked our way around various obstacles, pointing out wildlife and trying to imagine what might come next. The former Dell Inc. executive and his equally engaged partner devote themselves to countless worthy causes.

Clearly, the Conservancy represents something crucial for the couple, perhaps because it affects almost everything that is definitional about downtown Austin.

"I have always been attracted to the great outdoors," Tom Meredith says. "I quickly realized Waller Creek could be a catalyst for downtown renewal, especially considering that the tunnel will remove (about) 28 acres from the floodplain; was in a state of atrophy and we need to restore and protect it; represents a mechanism that can reconnect East and West and North and South Austin; and could be a magnet that draws people from far and wide."

Inspired by efforts in other cities, such as those that rescued Central Park and created the hugely popular High Line Park in New York City, Meredith is not the type to stand by idly.

"Being a bystander just did not seem very appealing," he says. "Waller Creek is a lot safer than I had imagined. I now walk it fairly regularly. While it evidences aspects of a tough life for some in our community, it is poignant and profound and beautiful in part."

The loyal Out & About reader might have already guessed that I've explored Waller Creek pretty much from its headwaters above 45th Street to the Colorado River, where a sandy triangle of sediment has formed an island since my first strolls there in the early 1980s. I had always wondered why 1970s-era stonework along the lower creek — decorative bridges, walkways, embankments — seemed wrecked and abandoned by the public.

"They were built with the understanding that a 100-year floodplain meant that the next flood would come in 100 years," Tom Meredith says. "It came in 1981."

Afew weeks after our chatty walk, a group of 50 or so sat around dinner tables at the Meredith penthouse atop the Four Seasons Residences. They met the jurors tasked with narrowing the field of design firms to nine. Besides the Merediths,Ted and Melba Whatley and Melanie and Ben Barnes,present wereTeresa and Joe Long, Julie Blakesleeand John Spong, Mickey and Jeanne Klein, Sue Edwardsand David Bodenman, Rudy Green and Joyce Christian, Suzanne Booth, Eddie Safady, Ted Siff, Chris Mattsson and Charlie Betts.

Tom Meredith introduced Donald Stastny, founder and CEO of StastnyBrun Architects Inc., who is heading up the competition. "It's rare that you have a chance to change the face of a city forever," Stastny said. "If we are successful, this will be the heart of the city."

Juror and real estate expert John H. Alschuler Jr.knows how to use open space to incentivize development. "You have a diamond encrusted in coal," Alschuler said. Of the applying design firms: "You have attracted the best talent in the world."

"This is a momentous occasion," said juror Carlos Jimenez, who is particularly interested in culture and the memory of a place. On Waller Creek: "It has been buried and cauterized by the violence of development."

At our table, juror Marsha Maytum talked about adaptive use and universal design that might attract all Austin residents and out-of towners: "This has been like an archeological dig," she said about the process so far. "You have to be the champions of this project."

Juror Darrel Morrison emphasized introducing the right kind of plants, while distinguished landscape architect Richard Haag said: "We are joined together in a great adventure for the health, wellness and love of Austin."

University of Texas professor Allan W. Shearer, an alternate juror and stalwart project supporter, predicted a beautiful, elegant solution, embracing the concept: "Tell me your landscape, and I'll tell you who you are."

Still, the most powerful moment of the evening was reserved for urban planner Jennifer Mannhard, a Portland, Ore., resident who grew up off MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) in North Austin.

"This was a place I was not allowed to go as a kid," she said, choking up and cutting short her planned speech. "I can't wait to see what it becomes."

mbarnes@stateman.com