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Shoal Creek, Facebook, and the downtown ecology

Finding a relationship that works for the city

The bottom of a tall building with a mass of trees and a trail in front. There are people in bright safety vests working on the trail.
Volunteers at Facebook’s Shoal Creek cleanup
Courtesy of Facebook

When Facebook officially opened its new offices in the Third & Shoal building last week, the hubbub brought attention to what’s becoming a dense clutch of towers and other development around a small section of Shoal Creek that starts around West Avenue between West Fifth and West Third streets and runs to Lady Bird Lake.

Recent years have seen full-bore redevelopment of the stretch, resulting in the addition of towers and significant buildings, including the Independent, the Seaholm complex, and the Central Library, in addition to Third & Shoal. A new tower for Google is on its way.

While a responsible citizen and overly attached Austinite might merely pause to wonder what impact all this activity has on the creek itself, Shoal Creek Conservancy has been on top of that for a while. In addition to its strategic plan for the whole watershed (which—did you know?—starts at Highway 183 to the north and encompasses 13 square miles), the nonprofit organization has undertaken what it calls the Cypress and Shoal Creek project.

Focused on an area from West Avenue to around West Second Street, the project includes the creation of a new plaza, an improved bike and pedestrian pathway, and visitor information and signage at an abandoned trestle bridge—that starts at Third (formerly Cypress) Street where it meets the creek and runs parallel to the pedestrian bridge at that spot. Built around 1925, the timber bridge replaced an earlier one, built in 1876, and was part of the International & Great Northern Railroad system.

Third Street trestle bridge reimagining

The conservancy’s vision includes rehabbing the bride and repurposing it into a more structurally sound observation area with a plaza and seating, helping “people feel more connected over the water and to downtown,” said Ivey Kaiser, Shoal Creek Conservancy’s executive director. She added that the area could become a relaxing lunch and break spot for employees of Facebook and other businesses in the area.

The conservancy has been quietly partnering with companies involved with the area’s development, and one would expect no less from the area’s newest tenant, Facebook. The two have indeed partnered for the Cypress and Shoal project—a relationship kicked off by a major cleanup of that area of the creek by Facebook’s staff, families, and friends Saturday.

Facebook volunteers at Shoal Creek

While public-facing volunteer events are standard for companies large and small, the Saturday clean-up—which encompassed the area along the creek from West Sixth to West Cesar Chavez streets—added a hands-on element to the partnership not always seen in such relationships, which sometimes begin and end at financial contributions.

The event offered a “multitiered opportunity,” said Kaiser, “kicking off our partnership with Facebook and a visible welcoming of Facebook to the neighborhood as well as kicking off our fall events.” It’s the conservancy’s first event on the creek after a break over the hottest part of the summer and will be followed by tours focusing on a variety of things—birds, trees, fossils—as well as more volunteer workdays for the public.

As far as the general development around the Shoal and Cypress area, Ivey said that “so far, the impact has all been positive. That area has been developed for a long time [in terms of impervious cover], and our standards for environmental protection have only gotten stronger.” The conservancy has been getting the surrounding businesses “involved in funding our programs, helping keep litter out of the creek, and reporting pollution,” she added. “Having more involvement and understanding is going to be more and more beneficial. We think of them as our neighbors keeping up with creek—and they are now equipped with the information” to do so.

Since Facebook’s new Austin offices are located right at Margaret Moser plaza, where the project and the trestle bridge begin on the east side of the creek, its role as a corporate neighbor is integral to the Shoal and Cypress project. “As we continue to grow here in Austin, we remain committed to being a good neighbor and having a positive impact on the community,” said Katherine Shappley, Facebook’s head of Austin. To that end, the conservancy is finding more opportunities for its employees to volunteer and to educate them about the conservancy’s projects. In exchange, they get a pretty sweet break spot, at the very least.

Lady Bird Lake

Lady Bird Lake Trail, Austin, TX 78704