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Making Waves

Barton Springs Master Plan bubbles forth

By Daniel Mottola, Fri., Aug. 3, 2007

Making Waves

A passage on the city's website devoted to an ambitious master plan for Barton Springs Pool states that the project's goal is to return the pool to its "former glory, where the water was cleaner and the experience of the pool was more enjoyable."

But that description doesn't go far enough, said Robin Cravey, president of Friends of Barton Springs Pool, the group driving the master plan endeavor. The true goal is to return the pool "to its rightful glory," he said, "because time only moves forward." He was speaking to members of the Save Barton Creek Association at their weekly Monday night meeting at Vinny's, just down the street from the pool, as they were about to hear a presentation on the master plan -- a broad needs-assessments guide meant to study and prioritize a laundry list of upgrades at the sacred, spring-fed pool.

The Vinny's crowd that night represented a broad swath of deeply rooted community and environmental denizens and city employees, including former City Council Member Jackie Goodman (now president of the Save Barton Creek Association), her husband and fellow SBCA board member Jack, city Environmental Board member Mary Neely (attending in her SBCA Board capacity), and husband/board member Craig Smith. Both Smith and Jack Goodman are also on the board of the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District. A couple of city enviros also attended.

It's safe to say that the reception given the master plan was not altogether warm that night. The feisty audience responses to architect Al Godfrey -- who was hired by the city to head up the master plan with architecture team partner/spouse Laurie Limbacher -- reflected the protectiveness and strong opinions held by springs devotees.

Fresh off a well-received yet smaller-scaled restoration of Deep Eddy Pool, the Limbacher-Godfrey duo is set to present a list of proposed, short-term projects to City Council on Aug. 30, followed by a tentative council appearance to get the full master plan approved by early October. As some SBCA members seized on the more contentious aspects of the plan, Godfrey, an ever-eloquent orator, tactfully reminded the crowd, "We've only been asked to study this." He later assured them, "We're going to tread very lightly." Godfrey understands the mix of emotions involved when the words "master plan" come into play, particularly when the plan is attached to a community jewel. "People have this visceral dread that modernity has caught up with us, and we can't get away with the miracle any more. We're working to preserve the miracle of Barton Springs."

Leading the support for the plan are the Friends of Barton Springs Pool, an organization of hardcore swimmers who undertake regular cleanup and beautification projects. FOBSP secured the initial $500,000 from the council last October. Now, Cravey and FOBSP are among those paddling hardest to advance the master-planning process, which would go toward rehabilitating the historic bathhouse, improving water quality, sprucing up the landscaping, and engineering a way to prevent nuisance algae and flooding, which so far this year has forced the pool to close a record 16 times. Other objectives seek to bolster the endangered salamander population and improve the one-of-a-kind, spring-fed Sunken Garden southeast of the pool and the equally unique Eliza Spring. Both are favorite estuaries of the protected salamanders.

The more far-reaching and controversial proposals will likely take longer to move forward. These include building a new bathhouse at the pool's south entrance, moving the lower dam downstream, and redesigning the look and function of both dams.

With the City Council and City Manager Toby Futrell signaling their support for the plan with some initial cash, Cravey envisions gaining speedy approval on the short-term refurbishing projects. "There's nothing more fragile than a moment in time," he observed. That said, FOBSP will be among other civic organizations heading to City Hall this month, with hat in hand, as the council grinds out a new city budget. Meanwhile, the group will begin gathering needed scientific data on the inner-workings of the springs, which will help guide decisions on the projects that would carry lasting implications for the pool's ecosystem.

But as with many high-profile Austin projects, the reflexive response to a proposal labeled "master plan" is apprehension, because the words alone carry whiffs of a done deal without having first moved through "the process." Building consensus for the plan is made more difficult by the fact that Barton Springs naturally brings out the protective -- and territorial -- spirit in so many. And the stakeholders include a number of politically powerful community groups that strive to do what's best for the springs and its federally protected habitants -- the salamanders.

Accordingly, many are hesitant to cannonball into the process just yet, and the central concern is that interested groups haven't had the opportunity to collectively discuss the plan's objectives. At the SBCA meeting last week, for example, Jackie Goodman lamented the lack of a formal public review process before the master plan goes to the City Council in late August. "This isn't like any other master plan I've seen," she said. After the meeting, it was learned that the short-term proposals in the plan would in fact go through public channels before hitting the council dais, although it's unclear whether Goodman and others' concerns prompted this decision.

(A side note to this story is that Cravey is running for City Council next May and would likely use the Barton Springs proposal as part of his platform. Additionally, Goodman is widely believed to be considering a mayoral bid, although she couldn't be reached at press time to confirm.)

Godfrey said that the term "master plan" in this case is a bit of a misnomer. He explained that the plan is more of a needs-assessment study with various options for pursuing an official master plan.

Echoing the sentiments over a lack of inclusiveness, Save Our Springs Alliance Executive Director Bill Bunch, in a separate interview, said the process so far is "not good at all" and that "meetings have been balkanized, with one, then another, but not held collectively to hear everyone's ideas." The plan, Bunch went on, seems to serve to empower city staff and its hired consultants -- "nothing new around Austin, which is good at giving the appearance of public participation." While SOS' board hasn't formally voted on recommendations, Bunch said the board members "favor actions that restore and enhance what we have, not add additional development and pavement in the park." SOS opposes building a new south bathhouse near the back gate, where a dirt parking lot and grassy field still retain the more casual look of "old Austin."

One potentially positive thing about the plan, Bunch said, is that it could provide "an opportunity to build community around the springs. But so far, it's been handled in a way that promotes disagreement versus consensus building."

Trying to quell any ill will, Farhad Madani, assistant director of Austin's Parks and Recrea­tion Department, defended the public process to date. "When people are happy with how things are being done, they're not going to voice concerns," he said, adding that less than 50 people attended the last two public meetings and about the same number had sent comments through the city website (www.ci.austin.tx.us/parks/bartonspringsmp.htm). He went on to comfort the public-process-wary that after the master plan's approval, city staff will still need to gain public and council approval on every project in the design and implementation phase. He said the short-term projects, such as the existing bathhouse fixes, could be under way in the next one to five years, while the longer-term projects that require studies on their impact on the salamanders and surrounding habitats, could take up to 10 years.

City environmental scientist Laurie Dries (who described herself more accurately as an evolutionary ecologist), attended last Monday night's SBCA meeting -- not on behalf of the city but out of personal and professional interest in protecting the salamander. In an interview after the meeting, she said she and her city colleagues resurrected the salamander population from nine sightings per month to more than 319 in the course of two years -- largely, she said, "by chunking rock for eight hours a day, affecting the sediment the way nature did." From this standpoint, Dries says she's looking at the master plan's implications to salamanders beyond the span of a human lifetime: "We can easily spend a lot of money, change a whole bunch, potentially screw up the species, and find we can't change it back five to 10 years later." Dries stressed the need to collect scads of data on flooding, normal water flow within the pool, and its topography. She is open to studying the nitty-gritty projects, such as rebuilding the pool's dams. And she agreed with Cravey that studies could take place as smaller projects proceed, but she was emphatic about the need for complete data, as well as committed oversight, before undertaking fundamental changes to the pool. "We could build a model in three to five years, which is nothing compared to the 100 years of changes we've imposed on the flow of Barton Springs."

Asked about the discrepancy between the Friends of Barton Springs Pool's eagerness to move the plan forward compared to other groups' hesitation and feelings about the absence of community involvement, Cravey said: "This happens in every local process. We did everything we could to call attention to this and we want people who are interested now to come in with good will and work with us."

For instance, he says that though he's personally in favor of a new south bathhouse -- perhaps the most contentious aspect of the plan -- "it's wrong to turn the issue into a matter of principle." He stressed that the folks driving the plan are members of a volunteer nonprofit who put in scores of volunteer hours at the pool, and he denied any accusation that they are in fact part of what's referred to as a bathhouse industrial complex.

Cravey explains his sense of urgency to dive into the master plan this way: "There have been a lot of plans written in this town and never implemented; I don't want this to be one. This is our chance; we need to pull together and seize the moment."

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