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EXCLUSIVE: Get a first look at the completely reimagined Waterloo Park in downtown Austin

Michael Barnes
Austin American-Statesman
Construction work is finishing up at Waterloo Park, which includes the new 5,000-guest capacity Moody Amphitheater, VIP room, play area for children, and shaded walkways. The park is on track to open this summer.

An instant landmark, Waterloo Park, which includes the 5,000-guest Moody Amphitheater, stands virtually ready to share its abundant nature, culture and history. Its grand opening, however, has been pushed to late summer because of pandemic concerns.

At three full city blocks the largest downtown park — its $88 million total price tag paid for by a mix of public and private money — Waterloo includes landscaped trails, a playground, large lawns for event seating, indoor and outdoor lounges, concession and ticketing areas, a small Greek-style limestone theater and a grand stage framed by a forest of white steel beams. 

It will function as a free city park even while ticketed events are presented at the amphitheater.

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History of Austin's Waterloo Park

The park was built in the mid-1970s as part of the nation's bicentennial celebrations to complement what is now the Butler Hike and Bike Trail and other greenbelts. Before that, it was home to a low-income, mixed-race neighborhood along Red River Street that was bulldozed in the 1960s and '70s. That was part of a federal urban renewal program that targeted so-called blighted areas, which often meant clearing out communities of color.

The stage house at the big theater, designed by Thomas Phifer and Partners, consists of a broad stage backed by concrete and topped with five miles of white steel structural beams and a glass sunroof.

In the years after it opened in 1978, Waterloo was inadequately maintained and periodically underused, except during festivals, such as the Waterloo Music Festival and Fun Fun Fun Fest, which moved to Vic Mathias Shores in 2011 when work on the Waller Creek Tunnel had begun. The last fest was staged on the shores in 2015.

Twelve years ago, city leaders founded the nonprofit Waller Creek Conservancy to improve the creekside, which would soon be available for development because the long-delayed Waller Creek Tunnel could protect that area from the constant threat of severe flooding. Fees on those new buildings in the Waller Creek Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone are helping to pay for the tunnel, and for the new parks that will string along the creek from the University of Texas campus to Lady Bird Lake. Waterloo Park is the first to be completed.

As reported by the American-Statesman, the cost of the tunnel project rose from $25 million when voters first approved it in 1998, to $68.3 million when the city asked Travis County for funding help in 2006, to $150 million in 2014 and then to $161 million in 2016, when the city added money to cover design flaws.

The conservancy, which plans a total of $268 million in improvements along one and a half miles of creek, changed its name to Waterloo Greenway in 2019. Work on the 11-acre Waterloo Park had begun in December 2018. Donors are covering much of the remaining costs of the parks; the Moody Foundation put up $15 million, for instance, for the amphitheater.

Although only 20 staff members work for the nonprofit, they will be supplemented by events employees and "downtown ambassadors" provided by the Downtown Austin Alliance. They are also supported by layers of volunteer committees made up of a broad cross section of community leaders.

Waterloo Park includes landscaped trails, a playground, large lawns for event seating, indoor and outdoor lounges, concession and ticketing areas, a small Greek-style limestone theater, shown, and a grand stage framed by a forest of white steel beams.

Park to bring more events to downtown Austin

The stage house at the big theater, designed by Thomas Phifer and Partners, consists of a broad stage backed by concrete and topped with five miles of white steel structural beams and a glass sunroof. Around that stage are arranged large, nearly flat lower lawns that can be set up for blankets or fixed chairs, and two hill-like upper lawns for blankets or small chairs built on a one-and-a-half-acre ledge cantilevered over the creek's canyon.

Additional structures include north and south roll-out concession stands, a box office at the Trinity Street entrance, restrooms that can accommodate more than 80 people at a time, and two VIP areas, one of which will overlook performances from above stage left, as well as dressing, loading, mechanical and other support rooms.

To the south of the amphitheater are a nature-inspired playground, a plaza, shady areas for families to congregate under ancient oaks — "grandparents of the park" — curling limestone "scramble paths" made from quarry rejects, and a fantastical "skywalk" that helps make the park ADA accessible despite the 55-foot change in elevation from the western entrances down to the creek.

Approximately three dozen dates during the year will be booked by Austin-based concert promoter C3 Presents, now part of Live Nation. Revenues from those shows, which will include discounted community ticketing, will help maintain the park. Waterloo Greenway is already in discussions with community groups, including small nonprofits, about events that it will either produce or present. The conservancy is also coordinating with the Red River Cultural District to complement its projects.

"We are working with sponsors to make the spaces available for smaller groups at a lower cost," said chief operating officer Erica Saenz. "The bigger events will generate revenue to help pay for operations. We will sell season tickets for both kinds of shows."

Currently, almost all tours of musical acts are on hold because of the pandemic.

Family-friendly areas, green spaces

To the south of the amphitheater are a nature-inspired playground, a plaza, shady areas for families to congregate under ancient oaks — "grandparents of the park" — curling limestone "scramble paths" made from quarry rejects, and a fantastical skywalk that helps make the park ADA accessible despite the 55-foot change in elevation from the western entrances down to the creek. To the north are two historic buildings, one from the 19th century, the other a modernist gem, both occupied by nonprofits.

An elaborate system of cisterns, porous membranes, sand and trail material will help recycle and redistribute water around the green spaces designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates.

New Waterloo Greenway  interim director Kathy Miller looks on before a tour of Waterloo Park. The conservancy plans a total of $268 million in improvements along one and a half miles of creek.

Eight large trees were transplanted to the grounds, four from within the park, four from other locations. The largest was transported on a huge vehicle seven blocks from North Congress Avenue where new state office structures are being built. Another came from the modernist former home of the Austin Symphony offices just north of Symphony Square. That building was being demolished Tuesday to make way for a mixed-use tower. Waterloo Greenway now occupies most of Symphony Square, a collection of 19th-century structures renovated or moved to the spot in the 1970s.

Waterloo Park 'embracing history' to boost Austin's future

Much like historical images that adorn the balustrades above the Butler Hike and Bike Trail in front of the City Hall, images of Waterloo Park's past, including the neighborhood that once existed there, will hang on the railing at park entryways. Remnants of the 1970s park and even older residences and bridges have been preserved when possible.

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"We are embracing history while leaning into the future of Austin," said Kathy Miller, a veteran nonprofit leader and newly named interim director of Waterloo Greenway. "We are aiming to make a vibrant, iconic hallmark that connects the university to downtown and the lake by bringing together environmental, cultural and equitable values. It's very Old Austin and very New Austin."

As a new, straighter route for Red River Street punches through the former Brackenridge Hospital campus, the old eastern border to Waterloo Park will become a landscaped pedestrian walkway. Talks are underway with state government about use of raised parking garages along Trinity Street for big events. A large Metro stop is already in place, and Project Connect's Gold Line is expected to deliver visitors to the Trinity Street entrance in the future.

The playground equipment at Waterloo Park is inspired is inspired by nature.

Taking COVID-19 considerations

The mammoth intake facility for the Waller Creek Tunnel at in the park's southeastern corner will remain an unavoidable visual presence. The height of the main structure there was lowered to comply with Capitol view corridor standards. Extra barriers are being erected to keep the public out of the facility's innards. 

Although a few elements remain incomplete and safety barriers still rise along Red River, Trinity, East 12th and East 15th streets, plans for a packed grand opening depend on progress on the pandemic front.

"We want to be COVID safe," said community engagement director Melissa Ayala. "So we continue to talk to (Austin Parks and Recreation) about their guidelines."

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at mbarnes@stateman.com.