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City plans to transform Waller Creek from wasteland to wonderland

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It's the dirty underbelly of Austin's thriving entertainment district. The police chief says he can't imagine children ever being able to play there. Yet city leaders say it will soon be known among the ranks of the Riverwalk and Central Park.

Take a walk under the tunnels of Waller Creek and you will be hit with the stench of urine and human waste. You will also encounter it along with liquor bottles, condoms and drug paraphernalia. FOX 7 found what appeared to be a heroin needle not too far from where a turtle was swimming.

City leaders recently unveiled plans to turn this disgusting mess into something beautiful.

"In 15 or 20 years, I tell you today, that just as people think New York Central Park, San Antonio Riverwalk they will think Austin, Waller Creek," said council member Sheryl Cole.

A team of designers plan to widen the creek and make easy sloping walkways for better access. Concept photos show families running through exquisite greenery, even fishing.

Just after Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo saw the plans on display at City Hall, he addressed city leaders in a committee meeting.

"Unless we start changing the environment, I don't know how we're going to accomplish that. I just don't see kids playing in Waller Creek with the current environment," Acevedo said.

He can't see it because he knows what his officers encounter down there.

"Its crack cocaine," an APD undercover officer said as he pointed to what looks like little white rocks.

APD's metro-tactical team nabbed a man who they say was selling crack along Red River. The street runs along Waller Creek. He messed up when he made a transaction with an undercover officer.

"They were about to cross the street. He said 'hey you got any hard?' He did buy $40 worth of crack," the officer said.

Officers say he was on his way to smoke it when they made the arrest.

"The gentleman was walking over to the creek between 10th and 11th and Red River," the officer said. "The Waller Creek area is where they go to smoke it."

Minutes later and a couple blocks south at 4th and Sabine, another dealer falls into the same trap.

"I ain't done a damn thing," the suspect said as police put the handcuffs on.

Officers say any given night dozens of buyers will line up along this bridge over Waller Creek. If caught, they throw the crack into the water before officers are able to grab it.

Kreig Hornberger is a parking attendant at a lot at Red River and 10th Street.

"You'll always see the old pass and go and then one guy takes off. The dealer stays there," Hornberger said.

He's learned to work around the crime, but tourists, he says, have no idea what they're walking into.

"They'll come up right here and I'm standing there and they'll say 'I'm never going back there.' They're scared," Hornberger said.

Chief Acevedo says the new plans for the creek can only come to life if homeless services like the ARCH are relocated--removing the aggressive transient population.

Homeless advocate Richard Troxell says even if they wanted to leave they can't because of "not in my backyard feelings." He says city or county land offers will only be met with resistance.

Troxell says the best hope will come from a private land donor. In addition, homeless service providers will need a permanent income stream and there must be transportation.

"Until that happens, its status quo. It's going to remain the same and all you're going to do is create angst in this community," Troxell said.

Troxell says 1,000 homeless people travel up and down the Waller Creek corridor every day.

Council member Sheryl Cole has been working on the project for six years.

"We simply have to look at the examples that have happened other places that have been underutilized and deteriorating," Cole said. "The Highline, the Riverwalk, Millennium Park they didn't look like that and it didn't happen overnight and, yes, they had transient homeless issues and we will address them because we are a great city too."

Cole says she is open to hearing Troxell and Acevedo's concerns, but doesn't believe moving the homeless will be necessary. She thinks the shift will happen naturally.

"The new design, the people, the amenities, the activities will help revitalize the area and make people want to come there and the more people that come, the more activities to come. The more live work and more play that comes the better the environment will be," Cole said.

There is no projected cost or completion date for the new design. Voters recently approved $10 million to go toward the project.

A flood control project along the creek valued at $147 million will be complete in 2014.

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