The Waller Creek Conservancy is renovating a large part of Symphony Square for offices as well as indoor and outdoor spaces for public events, meetings and other gatherings as part of a $246 million campaign to transform the eastern sector of downtown into a string of destination parks.
“It’s such a hidden gem in the chaos of downtown,” said Peter Mullan, CEO of the conservancy. “During the past months, Austinites have shared with us their fond memories of the square as this whole other world.”
The parkland was originally leased in the 1970s from the city of Austin by the Austin Symphony, after federally funded urban renewal projects moved several historic structures to a cluster of sites along the creek. In 2017, that lease was partitioned, and the conservancy has committed to leasing its part of the square through 2075.
Rather like the arrangements for the High Line in New York City and Discovery Green in Houston, the Austin nonprofit is tasked not only with designing and building projects along the creek, but also with programming, operating and maintaining the parks once they are completed.
Work is well under way at Symphony Square by builders from Formed LLC, using designs by architectural and interior design firm Page, as well as landscape architects at DWG.
“Being here already helps us understand how the creek operates,” Mullan said. “The good, the bad and the ugly. We are now experiencing the real Waller Creek.”
The site is expected to serve as the hub for the Creek Show, which starts with a private preview Nov. 8 and opens to the public Nov. 9. Last year, more than 20,000 people visited the conservancy’s annual show of site-specific art along the creek.
At the square, the Symphony will retain as its ticket office in the triangular Jeremiah Hamilton House — dated to the early 1870s and named for one of Texas’ first African-American legislators — located at the corner of Red River and East 11th streets, an area where for many years black, white, Latino, Lebanese and Chinese merchants often got their retail starts.
The nonprofit will assume responsibility for a small creekside amphitheater, which will continue to host the symphony’s popular Art Park, as well as other events, with a seating capacity of 350.
For its part, the conservancy has taken over the former Serranos restaurant, which consists of the Hardeman House, built in the 1850s, and a pavilion added in the 1970s, as well as the former New Orleans Club, constructed in the 1870s and a popular music venue going back to the 1950s. Despite active demolition and construction, people are still drawn to the yellow Serranos sign that hangs on Red River. The restaurant closed in 2015.
“Anywhere from three to six or seven people drop by for lunch,” said Antonio Madrid, the general contractor. “They start trickling in again at 4:30 p.m. for happy hour. Confused, they peek their heads in to see what’s going on here.”
The stone and brick core of the Hardeman House is about 1,800 square feet formed into an L-shape, but additions expanded it to 3,400 square feet. When it was moved from its original home on East 14th Street, it was dropped over a newly dug basement at Symphony Square.
The airy pavilion with its 1970s feel is 2,100 square feet. The plainly dressed New Orleans Club — blocks of limestone on the facade and irregular limestone inside — is 900 square feet. The conservancy plans to keep its unfussy wooden bar.
An addition on the northwest corner of the Hardeman House was the toughest for current workers to transform.
“It was the grossest room,” Madrid said. “It served as the dish pit and had been covered in water and acid for years. The smells didn’t want to leave. You could really tell the wear and tear of a restaurant building.”
Currently, the conservancy is housed in rented offices in a tower several blocks from Waller Creek. Soon, its staff will work within sight of Waterloo Park, its first major construction project, which includes the 5,000-seat Moody Amphitheater, expected to open in 2020.
Three other projects also are actively in the works: a nature and sculpture park on the creek’s delta, a pontoon bridge across Lady Bird Lake, and a reanimated Palm Park next to the Travis County-owned Palm School.
In May, the Austin City Council authorized an extension of the tax increment financing, or TIF, assessed on land in the flood plain. It has been used to finance the troubled $161 million Waller Creek flood prevention tunnel. It now will also cover $110 million of the parks tab.
The conservancy has so far raised $46 million from private sources; it plans to put together $48 million more. The city and state of Texas are kicking in $42 million from sources other than the TIF.
As with any project at an historical site, surprises pop up. Behind the pavilion, for instance, workers uncovered an Elisabet Ney bronze bust of Dr. David Iglehart attached to a granite podium above a watering trough that formerly stood on Speedway. It was transferred to Symphony Square for an unknown reason in the 1970s.
“It was supposedly Ney’s least favorite sculpture,” Mullan said.
Funding for Waller Creek Park
(Not to be confused with the $161 million Waller Creek Tunnel.)
City of Austin and state of Texas: $42 million
City of Austin via Waller Creek TIF: $110 million
Waller Creek Conservancy raised to date: $46 million
Waller Creek Concervancy fundraising needed: $48 million
Total capital cost: $246 million