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Park, Pond, or Ballfield?

Three rivals vie for a stretch of city land

By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Sept. 27, 2013

UHO's Little Miss Kickball team celebrates the 2013 season.
UHO's Little Miss Kickball team celebrates the 2013 season.
Photo courtesy of UHO facebook page

A park, a sports facility, or a pond?: Three rival uses for a stretch of city land in the Highland neighborhood come before City Council today, (Thursday). But if the neighborhood association gets its way, and the whole 7-acre spread becomes a public park, then one of the city's longest-running sports programs for underprivileged kids could become homeless.

At this week's council meeting, Council Member Kathie Tovo is sponsoring a resolution (Item 77) instructing City Manager Marc Ott to explore plans for the site's future usage. The city originally acquired the lot on West Saint Johns in 1970, with the aim of digging a new water retention pond. That never happened, and in 2003 a proposal to turn the area into a public park was written into the Brentwood/Highland Neighborhood Plan. However, the argument heated up last December, when the Watershed Protec­tion Department presented a new pond plan to the community. In June, the Highland NA organized the campaign, "A Park For Highland": Its argument is that, with only one 1.5-acre pocket park for the whole community, High­land is nowhere near the city's current goal of having all city residents within a quarter-mile walk of a park.

However, that's a real issue for the current tenants, University Hills Optimist, a nonprofit that has leased the site from the city since 1971. For 42 years, Reznicek Field has provided softball, baseball, soccer, and kickball programs for kids ages 4-17. If the land becomes pure parkland, the programs will lose their space, and there are concerns about being able to find a replacement.

The resolution says that recent numbers from the city's Parks and Recreation Department show "a substantial number of youth sports participants who use this facility reside outside the City of Austin." But UHO is unhappy at the suggestion that the kids are somehow interlopers in the community. At the request of Mayor Lee Leffing­well and Council Member Bill Spelman, UHO provided a breakdown showing that 529 (81%) of the registered kids come from Austin zip codes, and 43% live either in the Highland 78752 zip code or in a neighboring area. And at Council's Tuesday work session, staff reported that there is yet another youth league using the land under an unofficial sublease from UHO. The city is reaching out to both groups to estimate usage and the park's overall role in youth recreation.

There is still time for compromise. If adopted this week, Tovo's resolution puts forward four options for discussion: turn the space into a retention pond as originally conceived in 1970; give HNA the park it wants; create a mixed-use park/sports space for the UHO and the community; or leave the space with UHO. The proposal directs Ott to hold community consultation meetings, and return to Council with feedback on Oct. 24.

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