Reflecting on the Beauty of Waller Creek Amid Massive Campus Construction

AS a student at UT in the early ’80s, I walked across Waller Creek at 21st Street and San Jacinto Boulevard hundreds of times.  
I would head from Jester Center for evening runs around the track at Memorial Stadium; take advantage of my Longhorn football student season pass on Saturdays; and play racquetball on the old outdoor courts at Clark Field. I even worked on the banks of Waller Creek at the Etter-Harbin Alumni Center for this very magazine for seven years, before leaving in 1992 to work for the Texas Department of Transportation’s “Don’t Mess with Texas” litter prevention campaign. Now, decades after my UT days, I must admit I don’t recall ever stopping to appreciate the wonder and significance of Waller Creek. 

That all changed for me when I recently met with Jim Walker, director of UT’s Sustainability Office, who shared the 2019 “Waller Creek Framework Plan” with me. The plan came out of the 2012 Campus Master Plan that envisioned  campus growth shifting to the east, placing  Waller Creek and the San Jacinto Boulevard  corridor as the central point for campus. The plan addresses ways to improve the creek’s flood conveyance, bank stability, utility routing, water quality, health and safety issues—and integrate it with campus’ identity. 

As I learned about the creek overhaul, all my years of environmental work urging people to “know your watershed”—an area of land where rainwater falls and drains into bigger bodies of water—came back to me in glorious burnt-orange fashion. So on a sunny day this past May, I went back to experience Waller Creek all over again. Donning a mask, I started my socially distanced walk at the Health District (home of UT’s Dell Medical School and Dell Seton Medical Center) between 15th Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard. Waller Creek runs through the middle of the Health District, and I strolled through colorful drought-tolerant landscaping, featuring vivid yellow sunflowers contrasting the Indian blankets and bright red firecracker plants. 

From there, I walked north toward campus proper, passing a mega-construction project for the Capitol Complex at 18th and Trinity where the waters of Waller Creek looked surprisingly pristine, despite all the surrounding urban activity. After walking past the historical landmark “Santa Rita No. 1,” I crossed the footbridge connecting San Jacinto to what’s now called the Caven Lacrosse and Sports Center at Clark Field.  

From there, I walked north toward campus proper, passing a mega-construction project for the Capitol Complex at 18th and Trinity where the waters of Waller Creek looked surprisingly pristine, despite all the surrounding urban activity. After walking past the historical landmark “Santa Rita No. 1,” I crossed the footbridge connecting San Jacinto to what’s now called the Caven Lacrosse and Sports Center at Clark Field.  

Gone are those old outdoor racquetball courts I used to play on, replaced on the north end of Clark Field by the expansive San Jacinto Residence Hall and its Cypress Bend Convenience Store and Cafe. Though campus was virtually shut down due to the pandemic, there were a few athletes on the field, including a soccer player kicking a ball around and a ballet dancer practicing his leaps. Workers wearing masks and gloves at the Cypress Bend Cafe offered bottled water and a few other sundries for sale from under a makeshift tent. 

It was at the Clark Field footbridge (one of more than 20 bridges that span this waterway on the Forty Acres) that, all these many years later, I realized the immense beauty of Waller Creek. Beneath the bridge, the water is greenish but clear, with limestone boulders visible along the bottom of the creek. Thick, tangled roots stretch from bald cypress trees plunging under, over, and around rocks and into the shallow stream. 

My friend Chris Plonsky—the chief of staff and associate director of Texas Athletics—helps oversee massive construction projects, which include a much-needed renovation of the Moncrief-Neuhaus training center for athletes at the south end of Memorial Stadium and an outdoor pool for Texas Swimming and Diving (to be named after Texas and Olympics Coach Eddie Reese) just south of that—all along Waller Creek. And, of course, there’s the Texas Athletics construction project getting the most attention: the Moody Center will become an intimate, state-of-the-art home of UT basketball, concerts, and other university events. 

I asked Plonsky, who has worked across the street from Waller Creek at Belmont Hall for decades, about all of the new construction and the ways the watershed will weave its way through UT’s future, front and center. She points out that Waller Creek literally connects UT with Austin and the city’s crown jewel, Lady Bird Lake and its popular Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail. 

“It’s what makes Austin Austin,” she says. “When there’s a hard rain on campus, you can watch it come down the creek bed. It’s incredible. It can shake you to your ankles. And then it pours into Lady Bird Lake.” 

Walker puts it this way: “The creek today is enjoying a more visible moment in the day-to-day life on the campus.” 

Part of that visibility comes from a partnership with the City of Austin and Waterloo Greenway Conservancy, the steward nonprofit responsible for the stretch of Waller Creek between UT and Lady Bird Lake. Together with UT, the group recently transplanted the first of several Live Oak trees from areas affected by Texas Athletics construction projects to the 11-acre Waterloo Park on Red River Street, between 12th and 15th Streets. 

But perhaps the most important example of Waller Creek gaining attention is a College of Fine Arts and Office of Sustainability collaboration that’s helping students learn lifelong lessons about urban ecology. 

It’s called the “Waller Creek Monster Project,” and leverages the traditional skills of Texas Applied Arts students such as prop building and sound and set design to bring attention to Waller Creek. 

“This has changed students’ understanding of their own environmental footprints—from travel to their food choices to shopping,” says Texas Performing Arts Scenic Arts Supervisor Karen Maness, who got the Creek Monster Project going in 2019 when the Waterloo Greenway Conservancy, which is orchestrating a massive $250 million green space redevelopment project in downtown Austin through 2026, invited her students to create a “Creek Monster Habitat” at 11th and Red River. 

As one of her UT students, Kevin Yuen, wrote in a Monster Creek Project blog: “Once people make the connection between themselves and Waller Creek and the surrounding environment, this serves as the catalyst for change, whether it be a small change in mindset or a massive call to action . . . I have learned that everything, no matter how small, whether it be the smallest rain puddle, the creek, the albino squirrels, to the cars commuting every day, all play an important role in Austin’s urban ecology.” 

If you are lucky enough to return to the Forty Acres sometime soon, think back to your days at UT and re-experience Waller Creek, with its one-mile stretch of 71 bald cypress trees and limestone creek floor estimated to be some 75 million years old. I look forward to seeing the Waterloo Greenway project come to full fruition by 2026. More than anything though, it’s reassuring to know Waller Creek’s clear, green waters will likely continue to flow over that limestone for millions of years to come. 

 
 
 

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