Waller Creek Jumps the Rails

Ella Lilly, Staff Writer

Along Lady Bird Lake’s popular hike and bike trail, Austinites can take advantage of the many activities to partake in. At the Waller Creek Boathouse, lines of locals carry paddles and life jackets to the lake, rowers train for competition, and tourists rent colorful vintage motor boats to enjoy the scenery out at the water. 

The Waller Creek Boathouse is home to the Austin Rowing Club (ARC), which has occupied the space since it was built and bid on in 2012. Other businesses that operate out of the boathouse, like Alta’s Cafe and Retro Boat Rentals, are subcontracted under ARC’s agreement with the City of Austin. However, plans for the new blue line MetroRail as part of Project Connect are about to halt business at the boathouse. ARC director Kevin Reinis is currently in discussions with the Austin Parks Department, Austin Transit System, and CapMetro about the future of the boathouse.

“I think Project Connect is a wonderful thing for the city of Austin,” Reinis said. “As a long-term Austin resident, I think improving our mass transit connectivity across the city is a very positive step for Austin. Unfortunately, the blue line, which is one of two light rail lines developed by the overall Project Connect plan, will totally obliterate the boathouse. And that’s to create a bridge over the lake and right where the boathouse sits. That bridge will end the hillside and go into a tunnel, creating an underground station for the light rail system that then connects underground to the Austin Convention Center.”

While the plans for taking down the boathouse have been circulating for a couple of years, the outcome of CapMetro’s proposal has resulted in the plans developing more quickly. While it’s not final, CapMetro is now conducting environmental studies to make sure the blue line will not be harmful to the environment. As meetings about the future of the boathouse continue, it’s clear to Rental Operations Manager Aubrea Rudder that the boathouse needinging to be torn down is almost a done deal.

“CapMetro still has to go through several permitting processes where they have to make sure that they can build on the lake,” Rudder said. “So that’s kind of what’s going on right now. They’re going through and doing environmental studies to make sure it doesn’t impact the wildlife of Ladybird Lake, considering we’re so close to the Congress bat bridge. And if it passes that, it’ll be almost like a done deal that they’ll take over the boathouse.”

If this comes out as the final decision, the future of the boathouse and ARC will be uncertain, according to Rudder. Rudder said the new goal of the ARC community is to secure a new location for the future of ARC instead of letting it fall through the cracks.

“We flooded a CapMetro meeting back in January, where we all went to the CapMetro meeting, not just ARC employees, but people from the community letting them know that hey, the boathouse is important to us,” Rudder said. “We don’t want to see it just wiped away and be gone forever. A lot of people utilize this boathouse and not only for rentals. There’s tons of community outreach, including the junior program and partnerships with other schools and programs.”

According to Reinis, the CapMetro public input form had the largest participation from the broader Austin community to date. Reinis was flooded with the support of the ARC and boathouse community, which includes its partners with organizations such as the Veterans Affairs, a cancer survivor support group, a Boys and Girls Club, and more.

“I’m very humbled by the response of our community,” Reinis said. “And when I say community, it’s much broader than just the rowing club. We get 100,000 visitors to the boathouse a year. It’s a very vibrant space, very much a part of the downtown vibe of things to do and a way to enjoy the outdoors and the beauty of Lady Bird Lake. And our community’s support was very clear at that meeting on Jan. 12.”

Sophomore and rower at ARC Isabel Ueber emphasized that the boathouse continues to be an important place for people of all ages, abilities, and interests. She attended the meeting in January with her teammates to support ARC.

“Rowing is definitely a huge part of my life,” Ueber said, “and I think that’s probably what most people on my team would say. It’s like a second home, which sounds really corny, but I spent a lot of time there. It’s just gonna be sad. But if I ever want to come back and visit after I graduate, there will still be a boat house, but it won’t be the same. And I also have a pretty long history, like the boathouse has been there for a long time, and my mom even rode out of it in college. It’ll be really sad just like having all that history kind of erased.”

As the blue line plans move forward, Reinis said ARC’s goal now is to continue to push for an agreement with the city so that ARC won’t be wiped out completely. This includes looking for a new location and partnering with the Parks and Recreation Department, which the CapMetro meeting helped ARC bring to the table after realizing the extent to which ARC mattered to its community.

“I would say it is through the efforts of our community, on raising the visibility of the impacts,” Reinis said. “Before the community raised the visibility, it was an extinction event. There was no response from CapMetro or Project Connect in the boathouse being destroyed. So I’m glad to say we’ve moved significantly from that point where now we’re at the table with Capital Metro and Parks Department to work through this significant issue.”