- By Gary Dinges American-Statesman Staff
A $15 million grant will fund a dramatic makeover of Waterloo Park, bringing new energy to a sleepy corner of downtown Austin.
The money to improve the park – including the addition of an amphitheater and great lawn that can accommodate up to 5,000 people – comes from the Moody Foundation, which says it has provided more than 3,700 grants worth more than $1.3 billion since its founding. Among its other major Central Texas donations is $50 million that was used to establish the Moody College of Communication at the University of Texas.
The Moody Foundation’s contribution to the revamp of Waterloo Park, a block from the Capitol at East 12th and Trinity streets, ranks as the largest philanthropic gift devoted to parks and open space in Austin’s history, according to the Waller Creek Conservancy, the group overseeing the project.
“They were interested from the moment we first approached them,” Waller Creek Conservancy CEO Peter Mullan told the American-Statesman. “They really challenged us to think big. We all want this park to be as broad and inclusive as possible.”
That includes drawing people from across the city, not just the downtown area, Mullan said.
Work on Waterloo Park – a key part of a much larger effort to remake downtown’s Waller Creek from Lady Bird Lake to the UT campus – will kick off this year and should be completed by 2019, the Waller Creek Conservancy said.
Waterloo Park, which spans 11 acres, has mostly been off-limits in recent years while crews worked on an intake building for the Waller Creek tunnel, a massive project aimed at taking a large chunk of downtown out of the flood plain.
Waterloo Park is named after the town that preceded Austin, according to the Austin Parks Foundation. Until its closure for construction, it was a popular site for festivals, such as Fun Fun Fun Fest and the Austin Ice Cream Festival.
“As soon as the tunnel is finished, we’re going directly into this project,” Mullan said.
Aside from the Moody Amphitheater and great lawn where crowds can gather to see a variety of free and ticketed performances – Mullan envisions just about every musical genre being represented at some point, plus other types of acts – the revamped Waterloo Park will also feature a mile and a half of trails, gardens and play spaces, among other features.
Thomas Phifer & Partners is the firm that was selected to design the Moody Amphitheater. It features an overhead structure that’s part steel, part translucent.
The intake building is on the park’s south side, while renderings show the Moody Amphitheater and many of the new amenities will be on the northern half.
“It’s a bold project,” said Austinite Ross Moody, trustee of the Moody Foundation. “The park felt neglected. It needed help. We really felt like we needed to breathe some fresh air into it. We’re really quite excited about the transformation.”
The surrounding area is in the midst of a dramatic transformation. In addition to the planned improvements at Waterloo Park and elsewhere along Waller Creek, UT’s new Dell Medical School is now open and talks are underway to redevelop the University Medical Center Brackenridge site once the hospital closes and relocates. The Red River Cultural District, home to a number of music venues, is nearby.
“We’re going big and going first to get to get things jump-started,” Moody said. “The Waller Creek project has something for everybody. It will cross all boundaries. People can go down there, enjoy it, let their hair down.”
Waller Creek Park, the overarching name for the system of parks along Waller Creek, encompasses about 37 acres of green space, according to Waller Creek Conservancy. End to end, it’s a mile and a half long.
“The Austin Parks and Recreation Department is thrilled that the Moody Foundation recognizes the Waller Creek Conservancy’s creative and transformative restoration of the parks and green space along Waller Creek,” Austin parks director Sara Hensley said. “The gift speaks volumes in support of the leadership, vision and dedication of the conservancy, as well as endorses the idea of public/private/nonprofits working together to create a better community.”
Once work on Waterloo Park wraps up, Mullan said he anticipates Palm Park, near the Austin Convention Center, will be the next phase of Waller Creek’s makeover. It’s a project city leaders hope more organizations will step up to help fund, just like the Moody Foundation has already done.
“Waller Creek Park is an ambitious, transformative project that embraces our core Austin values and prepares for future growth and vitality,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said. “The Moody Foundation’s incredible gift challenges us all to realize this opportunity for the benefit of our entire city.”
Once Waller Creek Park is fully complete, which should be in seven to 10 years, Moody says parkgoers could walk all the way from the UT campus to Lady Bird Lake “without ever crossing a road or seeing a car.”
“I love Austin,” he said. “It’s our home. It’s my community. I want to make it better for everyone.”