Old Man River Offering Trendy Urban Salvation

Austin joins new crop of US cities that are putting a twist on the riverwalk fad.

Standing beside what he's just called "an urban sewer," developer Perry Lorenz imagines the sound of nightclub jazz and the merry clanking of glasses. Where there is now only stagnant water and beer cans, he sees couples walking romantically arm in arm.

What he sees is a complete transformation of the property around the funk-filled gulch called Waller Creek into a vibrant collection of shops, parks, and cafes. And last April, after two decades worth of frenetic cheerleading, he got what he wanted when voters in this Texas town approved a $25 million overhaul.

"Waller Creek is a diamond in the rough," says Mr. Lorenz, peering down at the hearty-looking carp who are somehow making it in the radiator-coolant-colored water. "The city is taking land in the flood plain nobody can use and turning it into a focal point of downtown life."

In so doing, it joined the ranks of a second wave of communities that is returning to long-neglected riverfronts to reinvigorate their urban cores. Since San Antonio pioneered the riverwalk more than a half-century ago, dozens of other cities have followed suit. But now, new cities from Richmond, Va., to Oklahoma City to Austin are going beyond San Antonio's example to create their own models.

"A great deal of [this] comes in conjunction with a national re-emphasis on the livability of cities and the fight to reverse the urban flight of the '80s," says Matt Arnn, executive director of the Waterfront Center, a Washington-based nonprofit design consultant. "Riverwalks are a great tool for that, because quite often the waterfront represents a longstanding piece of history."

The booming economy and the recognition that the 1972 Clean Water Act has made America's waterways safe again have helped accelerate the trend. Mr. Arnn says he has seen a 50 percent increase in inquiries from cities during the past three years, and he estimates he's currently averaging 40 new phone calls a week.

Don't believe the hype

But while urban-design gurus laud such reinvestment in cities, they also caution communities embarking on riverwalk projects to consider exactly why they're doing it. Indeed, large-scale economic development efforts have been known to become unprofitable fads.

"Communities are always looking for that one killer amenity to bring tourists and put themselves on the map," says Chris Gates, president of the National Civic League. "The prevailing attitude is that if something's worked somewhere else, it must be a good idea here."

For example, the success of Boston's Faneuil Hall and San Francisco's Ghiradelli Square prompted a national boom of similar "festival marketplaces" - bazaar-style marketplaces with an emphasis on selling food, which peaked in the mid-1980s. A subsequent trend toward super malls and sports stadiums also subsided when cities learned that such developments need to accommodate multiple uses for long-term success.

Most recently, the surge of rosy revenues envisioned by legalized gambling venues in the early 1990s has lost much of its bloom as cities become aware of the accompanying societal costs.

Still, regardless of the venture, experts say that the key is to be different. "The fundamental problem is that when you replicate something from somewhere else, and it has no history or uniqueness, pretty soon it becomes a common thing," says Boris Draynov, president of the Roma Design Group architecture and consulting firm in San Francisco. "Why should I go to Baltimore when I can see the same thing in St. Louis or Des Moines?"

Steering a new course

For years, cities planning a riverwalk development have often turned to San Antonio for advice. The city's 59-year-old, 3.2-mile canal near the Alamo is considered to be the nation's premiere riverwalk - an idyllic, arbor-lined swath of parkland coexisting with Spanish-colonial architecture, and featuring more than 300 shops and restaurants.

But Austin, a free-spirited community that considers itself the cultural mecca of Texas, has taken pains to distinguish itself from its southern neighbor - to the point of conspicuously not turning there for wisdom.

In Austin, environmental issues are a primary concern, so the engineering plan to improve Waller Creek's water quality by 40 percent has been a strong selling point. And while San Antonio boasts well-known chains such as Planet Hollywood, Austin developers plan to steer clear of brand-name establishments.

"That stuff's a little kitschy for us," sniffs Lorenz. "We're looking for something a little more tony, in tune with our laid-back vibe, where people can just relax and have a good time."

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