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The Many Sides of Waller Creek

Upper Waller CreekThese words sound wonderful. Urban greenbelt improvement, smart growth, vibrancy, enhancement, economic viability — what’s not to like? Who could be against any of that? And indeed it does sound pretty good in a lot of ways. This is the Waller Creek District Master Plan we’re talking about, in Austin, Texas.

The creek runs through a long stretch of downtown, and it has been neglected. It’s surrounded by entertainment venues and other businesses that bring in millions in tax revenue, and it’s going to be revamped in a project with several stages, over many years. The idea that Waller Creek will eventually resemble San Antonio’s River Walk is for some Austin residents a dream, and for others a nightmare.

This is not just cosmetic surgery. There is real need for protection against flooding, and that problem is being addressed by the first stage of the project, the Waller Creek tunnel, whose groundbreaking ceremony took place last month (and was described by Jude Galligan in his Downtown Austin Blog.) When the tunnel is complete, 28 acres of previously dicey and unreliable real estate will be available for development and, of course, taxation.

Once the threat of flood damage has been avoided, the creek itself will receive the attention of engineers and landscapers, especially to prop up its banks and put a stop to some serious erosion. So it’s not only good for business, but also good for the environment. And for people who own boats, for whom life will be nicer. (There are even folks who want to remodel the creek to accommodate competitive whitewater rafting.) Downtown property values will rise. All this opulence will attract more citizens to live downtown, which the city devoutly wants, but only if they pay mortgages or rent.

And guess who’s in the way, as usual? Those pesky homeless people, who are even called aggressive, and no doubt some individuals are — just like speculators, merchants, and smug housed people, who can be not only aggressive but hostile and ruthless at times. Some say the creek area is a blighted insult to Austin’s reputation for being “clean, green, and safe.” A local with a poetic streak described it as “sort of a backyard underworld/no man’s land.”

Journalist Wells Dunbar tells us that Waller Creek

[…] never blossomed into the tourist attraction and growth-driver the city hoped for; instead, its overgrown and hidden trails became a watering hole of sorts for Austin’s homeless, surrounded by odious, stagnant waters.

Yes, some creekside areas are inhabited by people experiencing homelessness. And does anyone actually believe that people would really prefer to live in an oversized drainage ditch?

One fear shared by the homeless and their compassionate friends and advocates is that, on some level, this whole project is just a fancy excuse to shove the homeless out of the area. An Austin acquaintance tells us that the wealthy want to keep the homeless away from the University of Texas campus and the nightlife hotspots of Red River. Another informant says “smart growth” seems to mean “bring as many hip young white people into downtown Austin as possible,” and adds,

There isn’t enough money to adequately maintain the parks that we DO have. The city pool closest to my home has been empty for two years now because the city claims there’s no money to fix it. I would imagine the developers in the Waller Creek area would love nothing more than to run off the transient population and continue the ‘gentrification’ of the whole east side downtown area.

Of course, a project of this magnitude has been discussed for a long time. Austin is, and always has been, renowned for its music scene. Several popular venues are within the project’s boundaries, and some of them will be unable to adapt, or so it is predicted. In October of 2009, there was a conversation online among people intensely concerned about the future and fate of that scene, as it will be impacted by the Waller Creek renovation.

Some people want the ARCH to move. That’s the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, which occupies the designated area, along with just about every other social service provider, agency, shelter, and bureaucracy there is. If people experiencing homelessness are to put their lives back together, the tools and assistance they need are downtown, and so is the public transportation to get to them.

Homeless people are downtown not only to sleep and eat, but for medical care, job counseling, legal help, and to get their papers in order. Downtown is where the resources are, and this is not going to change any time soon. Yet there is an arrogant assumption that established services that so many good people fought long and hard to create ought to be displaced so that monied interests can be served instead.

One writer characterizes the shelter as “inexplicably and inappropriately” located in a neighborhood where there are bars. Of course, this same person would probably complain if the facility were in a neighborhood with families. (Some people are never satisfied.) He worries about the “concomitant illegal activity” that accompanies the shelter, as if the tourists and locals who frequent the bars never do anything illegal. And an area resident commented,

I have seen more patrons of these fine establishments peeing outside than homeless.

No one worries that the homeless will actually drink in the pricey downtown bars, which they couldn’t afford anyway. It’s the customers they worry about. An inebriated club patron may be a genial, generous, easy touch to a panhandler, or a tempting victim to a mugger. Either way, the business owners don’t want their clientele hassled.

Another thing that offends housed people, is the sight of homeless people lined up outside the shelter, waiting for nonexistent beds. Every night, according to one critic, as many as a hundred luckless folks don’t get a bed, and then they hang around the area. The presence of the ARCH downtown is equated with the folly of building a nuclear plant on a seismic fault line.

There is a belief that the shelter devalues all the properties in the area, especially the vacant lot across the street, which one commentator is particularly concerned about for some reason. He suggests that selling the land could bring a tidy profit, enough to move somewhere else. Some say the shelter is only downtown because no other neighborhood wanted it. But still, it should be possible to find land outside the city and move the shelter there.

Of course, the voice of common sense replies that relocating the ARCH will not cause the homeless to leave the city, but only make additional trouble and expense for down-and-out people who have enough of those things already. Anyway, nobody seems to be seriously contemplating that move, according to Sheryl Cole, Austin City Council member and Waller Creek Conservancy stakeholder. Cole has also been quoted as saying that homelessness can’t be swept under the rug, and the people of Austin need to be brave enough to address it head on.

And one school of thought holds that anybody who would pay $7 for a beer deserves to be panhandled.

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Source: “Waller Creek Groundbreaking Ceremony,” Downtown Austin Blog, 04/08/11
Source: “Money Flows to Waller Creek,” The Austin Chronicle, 02/25/11
Source: “Will the Waller Creek Development be the death of Red River music scene?,” Yelp.com, 10/24/09
Image by MicklPickl, used under its Creative Commons license.