Austin’s Thin, Green Line

by Ted Lee Eubanks Jr.
Board Member, Shoal Creek Conservancy

Shoal Creek is more gesture, more affectation, than a gushing river or stream. The creek is a paper cut rather than gash across the face of Austin.  Shoal Creek reaches 11 miles from the Colorado River (now Lady Bird Lake) north to US 183. Yet the watershed, the land area that drains into the creek, encompasses only 13 square miles. Shoal Creek is a thin, green line that offers a bright (if constricted) counterpoint to the urban landscape that is 21st century Austin.

The 11-mile forested corridor is generally continuous. Admittedly the headwaters, that area from US 183 north to Research Center, is almost completely paved, and the mouth of the creek (particularly from West 6th south to Lady Bird Lake) is quickly being shrouded by condos and rampant urban development. Yet between the two concreted extremes, the thin green line remains aesthetically and functionally intact.

What remains in a semblance of a natural state is not the result of any planned conservation effort or design. The city has managed Shoal Creek as a utility, a storm water drain and a sewage pipe, for much of its history. The creek has been viewed as a place to cross over or cover up. Bridges that cross the creek reveal little of what is underneath, even the historical structures themselves.

Countless drains carry Austin’s storm water and its rich brew of pollutants to the creek, then to Lady Bird Lake and the Colorado River. Sewer lines run down the center of the creek encased in concrete boxes. Erosion from the increased volume and velocity of rainwater threatens to topple many of the historic trees that crowd the bank. No flat surface is without graffiti; no dark space or nook is without a homeless camper.
Edwin Waller’s 1839 plan for Austin delineated the western and eastern boundaries as Shoal Creek and Waller Creek (yes, named after him). For a century Shoal Creek remained “way west” for most Austinites. Only with the construction of several bridges in the 1930s linking central Austin to the northwest hills did the notion of Shoal Creek as an insurmountable boundary begin to fade. The name, however, lives on in examples such as West Avenue, West Austin Park (near downtown) and West Austin School (now Pease Elementary).
Shoal Creek and Pease Park are also the “way west” regarding the geography of this nation. To the east of Shoal Creek are blackland prairies and the East Texas Pineywoods. To the west are the Texas Hill Country, the Trans-Pecos, and the American Southwest. Pease Park is a blend of both east and west, an amalgamation of xeric western scrub bordering eastern riparian woodland.
After the Great Depression and the construction of a number of bridges over Shoal Creek, the city rapidly spread west. Today Shoal Creek is the heart of Austin, which long ago abandoned any pretense of Shoal Creek being the western limits.
Now highways define and segment the city. Interstate 35 cleaves East Austin from the rest of the city, creating a minority enclave, although in recent years those areas closest to the interstate are beginning to see redevelopment. Mopac (Highway 1) divides the central core from west Austin. These sprawling freeways fence the city into segments that only blend where roads and underpasses allow.
Shoal Creek now splices central Austin into a cohesive whole. The creek interlaces the downtown residential district, the business district, the capitol and state office buildings, and the University of Texas campus.
A creek or forest, of course, isn’t an old building or bridge. Given time and space, nature heals itself. Yet both space and time are scarce commodities in a burgeoning city such as Austin.
In 2012 Austin celebrated the highest growth rate in the country for the second straight year. The Austin metropolitan area, home to nearly 2 million people, is expected to have an economic-growth rate of 6% a year through 2016. Austin grew by 37 percent from 2000 to 2010, gaining about 470,000 residents.

A good number of these new residents live around Shoal Creek. The past 20 years have brought a burst of residential growth in the central city. Many of these new city dwellers live in condos and apartments that border Shoal Creek below West 6th.

This rush to downtown has only just begun. The redevelopment of the Seaholm Power Plant property and the Green Water Treatment Plant will inject thousands of new residential units and mixed-use properties into the downtown market. A massive new library is being constructed along Shoal Creek near West 3rd. Bridges are planned, skyscrapers are being designed, and the downtown tax base is continuing to ratchet up.

Shoal Creek, you would think, would be awash in cash as a result of all of this development. Think again. The tax base is no doubt expanding, and development along Shoal Creek is a sizable contributor. But little of this revenue has yet to trickle to the creek itself.

In recent months a diversity of Shoal Creek interests began organizing to address these issues. This ad hoc group, the Shoal Creek Conservancy, has compiled a report exploring the feasibility of creating a sustainable nonprofit organization dedicated to the improvement of the trail, greenway, parks, water and watershed of Shoal Creek in Austin, Texas. The study was conducted by a group of volunteers supported by the leadership of the Original Austin Neighborhood Association, Cirrus Logic, Inc. and other private and public stakeholders.

As a result of this report, the Shoal Creek Conservancy has organized as a nonprofit organization committed to “restore, protect and enhance the ecological, social and cultural vibrancy of Shoal Creek for the people of Austin by engaging the public and partnering with the community.” The group envisions a Shoal Creek that “will be a vibrant corridor that integrates the flow of water and people, engages the community, and inspires the public.” The new Shoal Creek Conservancy will begin operations the beginning of October, with Joanna Wolaver as the new Executive Director.

For more information, visit the the Shoal Creek Conservancy (The Conservancy) website at  The Conservancy will be conducting interpretive walks along the creek this fall, so check the website for dates and times. In addition, the Conservancy will join with Preservation Austin for a historic bridge walk on October 26th (Save the Date) . This walk will include the oldest bridge on the creek (the 1887 West 6th Street bridge), and many of the WPA-era structures in and around Pease Park.