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Birds, Wildlife and Gardening

Exploring reimagined Waterloo Park in downtown Austin

August 30, 2021

Shade trees are precious in a hot climate, 200-year-old heritage live oaks even more so. As Waterloo Park in downtown Austin emerges from a massive, 10-year redesign and overhaul, two grand old live oaks on the west side of the park greet visitors as if lovingly presented on a platter. A floating deck encircles them, nearly as wide as their leafy canopy overhead. The deck keeps foot traffic off the trees’ delicate root zone while still inviting visitors to enjoy their shade. It’s beautifully done. And it’s a wonderful welcome to the new park.

Heritage Tree Deck

I’ve visited Waterloo Park twice since it reopened on August 14th. (Parking is free for 2 hours on weekdays and sometimes on weekends at Capitol Visitors Parking Garage.) But I still haven’t seen it all, having missed the wetland garden in the southeast corner. But here’s a full tour of what I have seen, starting with the Heritage Tree Deck.

Those beautiful trees! Metal rings draw a line around them and hopefully encourage people to stay off. One of the trees wears a sort of orthodontia — a tall steel ring with vertical arms that support the larger branches. Hopefully that tree isn’t ailing. The canopy is thin, perhaps an effect of the February freeze.

From under their canopy, looking uphill you see the pink dome of the Texas capitol — at least until newly planted trees fill in. A few cafe tables and chairs offer a place to sit and enjoy the shade.

Native and adapted plants

Built around Moody Amphitheater, a new outdoor venue with a white lattice shade structure, Waterloo Park anchors the north end of Waterloo Greenway, a chain of parks along formerly flood-prone Waller Creek. Having followed the progress of Waterloo Greenway for years, it’s exciting to finally step foot in a completed portion and see the vision coming to life.

Much of Waterloo Park is richly planted with drought-tolerant native plants, like the blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis) and rock rose (Pavonia lasiopetala) pictured above. Nonnative but hardy agaves like ‘Green Goblet’ add spiky accents — and even seem to have survived the epic February freeze. I did spot quite a few plant casualties, especially among young trees, but that’s true all over Austin post-freeze.

Seeing distinctive Texas plants holding their own against a backdrop of downtown buildings and the Texas capitol makes me happy. So much better than turf grass and traditional shrubs and street trees!

Moody Amphitheater

During my first visit to the park, the amphitheater and Great Lawn were closed in preparation for an inaugural concert by hometown musician Gary Clark Jr. From an overlook I watched seating and stage prep.

The stage, almost ready for the big show

To the east, a new office building rises, with cranes all around.

Reflective glass siding offers a funhouse-mirror image of the capitol building.

Family Commons food trucks and restrooms

Next to the tree deck, a couple of food trucks await concert-goers or perhaps lunchtime visitors.

A Brutalist-style, swoop-roofed concrete restroom has unisex stalls and a freestanding communal sink.

Kitty King Powell Lawn and playground

A playground entices kids with a stone slide, Mega Grass Maze, and Log Jam for climbing. No moving parts here. Just simple features to explore.

Stepped-back stone retaining walls are no doubt equally as tempting to play on.

Curvy stone walls encircle the playground, providing bench seating for parents and impromptu balance beams for kids.

A grassy mound looks inviting too. I can imagine toddlers running up and down.

Several heritage live oaks were, incredibly, dug up from other downtown sites scheduled for construction and replanted in Waterloo Park. I’m talking BIG trees, their massive root balls excavated, loaded onto trucks, and rolled through downtown streets to their new home. One of the trees weighed 150 tons, and the Statesman reported a moving cost of $100,000. These are valuable trees in every sense.

A monarch butterfly sips nectar from a color-coordinated Pride of Barbados (Caesalpinia pulcherrima).

Sunflower with Turk’s cap and blue mistflower

Skywalk and Hill Country Garden

Floating through the Hill Country Garden on the southwest side of the park, the Suzanne Deal Booth Skywalk offers wheelchair- and stroller-friendly access, as well as shade below.

The sinuous walkway elegantly sails overhead…

…a concrete magic carpet for anyone who wants a bird’s-eye view of the park.

Built in one of the skywalk’s curves, Lebermann Plaza offers amphitheater seating for 100 people. It looks like a good spot for a takeout lunch or an impromptu street performance.

At ground level, an equally sinuous but rugged limestone path winds through the garden.

It’s a pretty path that makes you slow down and watch your step, giving you time to enjoy the plants along the way.

Grasses and retama trees

A long bench snakes around a wide curve as the capitol peeks over the parking garage across the street. Once the trees on the west side of the park (the uphill side) fill in, the capitol views will disappear, which is a shame. Hopefully the horticulture team will preserve some of those views through selective editing rather than walling off the city completely.

A pretty vignette includes whale’s tongue agave (Agave ovatifolia) and rock rose (Pavonia lasiopetala). According to Waterloo Greenway, “More than 95% of the plantings [at Waterloo Park] are native to the area and were selected in a collaborative effort between local landscape architecture firm dwg., world-renowned architects at Michael Van Valkenburgh and Associates, Inc., and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.”

Desert willow (Chilopsis linearis) and the Texas capitol. Again, a tree (that looks to be ailing) is placed to block the capitol view. Maybe that tree should come out and not be replaced.

Great Lawn

From the skywalk you get a view of the Great Lawn, which appears to float over Waller Creek. Is this a green roof essentially? I can’t find any info online, but I’d love to know more.

Waller Creek Tunnel Inlet Facility

Less glamorous than skywalks and gardens, but essential to making today’s Waterloo Park possible is the flood management system for Waller Creek. For decades Waller Creek was a dismal, walled off, polluted stream that threatened to flood during every rainstorm. After millions of dollars spent and plenty of controversy along the way, Austin now has a massive tunnel that diverts Waller Creek’s overflow. One mile long and 22 to 26 feet in diameter, the tunnel moves floodwater swiftly into Lady Bird Lake, thereby removing 28 acres of downtown real estate from the floodplain. During dry times, the tunnel siphons water up from the lake to keep the creek flowing and alive.

The circular structure is the inlet facility for the tunnel. During my first visit, on a weekday morning, water cascaded over the curved front edge like a waterfall fountain. It looked nice and drowned out some of the noise of downtown. During my return visit another evening, the flow was turned off. I don’t know whether it’s functional or decorative, but it would be nice to see and hear it running all the time.

Evening visit

I returned to Waterloo Park the following week for a twilight stroll.

Moody Amphitheater and Great Lawn

Post-concert, Moody Amphitheater and the Great Lawn were reopened. Lines in the lawn show where chairs and aisles were set up during the show.

With concert equipment removed, the broad steps and stage beneath the shade pavilion are accessible. Park-goers can hang out there and imagine being the next big pop star, or sit in the shade while eating take-out, or whatever strikes their fancy.

One block away, the glowing dome of the capitol peeks over.

Back through the tree deck…

…and I enjoyed this capitol view again.

No children were around at this hour, so we got to play. That’s my dad zipping down the stone slide.

We examined the tunnel inlet facility again, with the waterfall turned off this time.

As evening fell, perforated light bollards flicked to life, gently illuminating the paths and Lebermann Plaza.

The lights looked especially pretty leading up through the Hill Country Garden.

A closer look

Even so, the park was a little under-illuminated, we thought. It was hard to see our footing on the rugged path, and we agreed that downlights in the trees and path lights by each step would be helpful. It would make a downtown park feel safer at night too.

After dark, the tree deck is still quite lovely.

As is the capitol building glowing white just down the street.

As we left, my dad asked about the park’s name, and I told him that Austin was originally called Waterloo in 1837, when it was just a small settlement. By 1839 it was renamed for Stephen F. Austin. But we still have reminders of our origin in Waterloo Records, Waterloo Ice House, and of course Waterloo Park and Waterloo Greenway.

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