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Keeping Austin Green

The Parks budget finally got a boost, but the real job has just begun

By Chase Hoffberger, Fri., Nov. 8, 2013

Auditorium Shores
Auditorium Shores
Photo by John Anderson

Every tree and trail in Austin let out a collective sigh of relief Sept. 10, when City Council approved a 15% increase in the Parks and Recreation Department's FY 2013-2014 operating budget to the tune of $7.9 million – up from $52 million last year. It's an unprecedented increase, the likes of which haven't been seen in more than 10 years, and it couldn't have come at a more urgent moment.

PARD's been getting the dead end of the funding stick for some time now. In a recession, failure to meet parks and recreation needs tends to happen all over the country, but the gap has been magnified in Austin. Lengthy droughts and a burgeoning population have meant that more people are spending their outside time on malnourished grounds. The wear and tear are starting to show.

According to the Trust for Public Land barometer ParkScore, Austin, a city regularly hailed for its abundance of natural beauty, maintains a parks and trailways system that ranks on par with that of bankrupt Detroit. The TPL's City Park Facts notes that our city spent a total of $68 per resident on parkland in 2012, a statistic that puts Austin in the bottom third of major cities in the United States. Comparatively, Chicago and New York, two cities regularly commended for their efforts to preserve urban parkland, spend $158 and $166.

Flower beds have been neglected; park restrooms get no preventative maintenance. Our trees are dying, our public pools are breaking, and we've had trouble stocking paint for our basketball courts. PARD has one of the lowest ratios of maintenance and forestry workers to acres of parkland in the country. In the past 10 years, our lawn-mowing cycle has been extended by 20 days.

The city's current goal hasn't been to keep our parkland first-rate; it's been to keep our parks from crumbling altogether.

In that context, PARD's newly budgeted $7.9 million won't turn Austin into a lush, grassy meadow, but it will help alleviate some of the worst stresses upon our 260 parks and 203 miles of trailways. PARD Director Sara Hensley said the money – to be phased in over time – will allow PARD to hire 60 new full-time employees – 20 for city cemeteries; five for new area parks; and 35 for "general park enhancements, forestry, pool maintenance, and trail improvements." That should cut down the amount of outstanding work orders, help maintenance staffers respond to graffiti and vandalism within a 24-hour time frame, and knock that mowing cycle number down by 10%. Additionally, PARD will outsource a series of projects to private arborist vendors to help reduce the backlog of dead trees.

"We'll decrease the work orders by 25 percent, and we'll increase response times," Hensley says. "We'll be more proactive when it comes to life expectancy of stuff, because we're not beating everything to death. We'll be able to get to some of our historic park infrastructure a little better, whereas in the past we haven't been able to touch that at all. And we'll increase our daily service in some of our high-priority areas to twice a day instead of once. PARD watches over 19,000 acres of land. That's 260 parks, 15 preserves, and 390 greenbelts. We have 127.5 grounds and maintenance workers, [who] are responsible for 270 square miles of parkland.

"You can see how we just can't get to everything. With the addition of the staff, we'll be able to do things a little better."

Take Park Ownership

The focus now centers on how PARD can get from better to best – or really good ... or, at the very least, appropriate for a city so often considered as a national model for the future.

PARD is not expecting its budgeted allotment to increase year after year; it's more likely we'll see flat funding than any additional increases. Says Hensley, "The Gener­al Fund only has a certain amount of dollars, and Health and Human Services and libraries need money, too." So her newfound ability to hire staff and assign more maintenance workers gives Hensley "a level of comfort, but it by no means helps us be at a point where we can be proactive." Moreover, with more people moving to town and a complete lack of rain waiting in the skies above to greet them, it's quite possible that the city will be looking at the same type of conundrum in another five years.

Sara Hensley
Sara Hensley
Photo by Jana Birchum

"It's absolutely imperative that we look at new ways of creating sustainability," says Hensley. Austin Parks Foundation Executive Director Colin Wallis acknowledges ever so casually that the "city budget is never going to be the end-all-be-all" – as a sustainable resource, he says, you "don't ever expect [city funds to] take care of all the problems." Most people with any understanding of the parks system say something similar. Those same people also agree that the city has no alternative silver bullet – no indisputable method for turning our parks to pearls – though there are a handful of options, some that the city has practiced to various degrees of success, and others that cities like Chicago and New York, as well as nearby Houston, have executed quite successfully, and may well prove beneficial in the long run.

One alternative approach applies largely to neighborhood parks, and includes organizational efforts like "It's My Park Day," an APF event held the first Saturday of every March. This year's event saw more than 3,500 volunteers throw 10,000 hours of volunteer labor into 90 parks around the city – as APF writes, "equivalent to five park maintenance employees working full-time for a whole year." It's a noble and productive strategy, but not consistently reliable – and certainly not a substitute for any type of recurring, institutional community efforts. Primarily, explains Rich DePalma, a consultant at Strategic Part­ner­ships who also serves on the Parks Foundation's board of directors, "There's a limit to what a volunteer force is allowed to do. We can't do the pruning on the trees," for example, but can handle simple maintenance.

Such objectives can occasionally fire up the masses – it's no wonder that APF picked what's consistently one of the first "We gotta get outside!" weekends in four months to rally more than 3,500 people – but remnants, tasks, and work orders that happen after It's My Park Day will generally fall to PARD maintenance. If the neighborhood is particularly lucky – or affluent – a conservancy group might sprout up, dedicated to maintaining a certain park standard: organizations like DePalma's group, Friends of Dick Nichols Park, which brings more than 200 neighborhood volunteers out for clean-ups and paint jobs, or Pease Park Conservancy, led by Richard Craig. The Conser­vancy just raised $247,000 worth of funding, entirely unrelated to the PARD budget increase, for the development of a park master plan that'll bring landscape architects Wallace, Roberts & Todd, LLC, from Philadelphia to, as WRT principal Eric Tamulonis puts it, "develop a vision for stabilizing the parkland's natural environment, improving its recreational use, and enhancing its aesthetic appeal." Needless to say, those efforts are exceptions to the rule across the city. Without that type of leadership and access to funding – and few neighborhoods can claim the type of organization and leadership Craig and his neighbors have provided around Pease Park – community-driven park sustainability becomes significantly more difficult.

The Pease Park Conservancy's efforts hint of another issue that may arise once its objectives – which currently have no clear shape or timeline beyond holding an official stakeholder meeting before Thanksgiving – are complete. "Great, you've raised money to develop a master plan, but how are you going to raise money to do the improvements that the master plan informs?" Wallis asks. "Over and above that, how are you going to take care of that stuff, knowing that PARD's budget isn't going to change, and they're never going to be able to take care of it on the level that you want to take care of it?

"It's great that I'm going to have a nice park for me while I'm here in this town and alive. But when our kids are adults, who's going to be taking care of that stuff then?"

Right now, nobody's really sure. Wallis believes APF provides the template. "Our history is such that, for 22 years we've been leveraging private citizens into not only doing work in parks but donating money to do work in parks. To me, that's the obvious answer moving forward: People and companies are going to have to take more of an ownership interest in park spaces they believe in."

Competing Interests

That part about the "companies" sets teeth on edge for a significant portion of Austin's population. Strap the word "corporation" onto a piece of parkland, and people begin worrying that the city's about to plant the golden arches over Zilker Park. It's a fundamental distaste, one that Wallis, an Austin resident for more than two decades, considers "part of Austin's DNA." On the other hand Hensley, at her post since 2009 (following a four-year stint at PARD in the late Eighties) considers herself such a proponent of park-related public-private partnerships ("P3s") that "people must think 'Oh my gosh, I can't believe she's the director of Parks and Recreation.'" She argues there's a misconception that makes some of the public believe that each P3 is another example of the city "selling our soul." Whatever the cause, in Austin and elsewhere, the P3 practice remains quite rare.

Millennium Park, for example, the down­town Chicago centerpiece now considered an urban parkland benchmark and landmark public space, only came to fruition because of over $200 million in private investments – in addition to city dollars. As it happens, no small portion came from McDon­ald's, and corporate brands like "Chase Promenade" and "AT&T Plaza" are attached tastefully to major features – yet there's nary a Big Mac on-site. Two other major urban spaces – Hous­ton's Discovery Green, and the High Line in New York City – were also made possible via P3s. In those two cases, conservancies working on the spaces brought in a multitude of privately donated dollars, in addition to city funding. Both industry experts and city leaders like Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole consider the Houston and New York models to be game changers for their ability to redevelop existing urban concepts for green space. And neither redeveloped citys­cape shoves the names of its private sustainers down visitors' throats.

Those three parks – in Chicago, Houston, New York – are important to the local conversation, because they're regularly cited by city planners and park advocates as examples of the way that Austin and the conservancy groups within it intend to redevelop certain local landmarks.

Currently, the most controversial and debated of those local landmarks is Audi­torium Shores, which C3 Presents, the producers of the Austin City Limits Festival among many other concert events, has pledged to help PARD remodel, by means of a $3.5 million donation. Túr Partners, a Chicago investment and advisory firm that also consults on city planning and redevelopment, and is headed by former Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley, is coordinating the Auditorium Shores project. Daley, mayor from 1989-2011, was a driving force in the redevelopment of Millennium Park, under construction from 1998-2004. C3, whose Lollapalooza music festival has consumed Chicago's neighboring Grant Park for one weekend each year since 2005, brought Túr to City Council and PARD's attention – C3's donation was conditional on adding an "outside partner" to the planning, and Túr was the C3 recommendation.

News of the redevelopment raised plenty of local eyebrows at the donation's June announcement, among other reasons because the events production company (which in 2009 also lavishly re-greened ACL Fest site Zilker Park) was initiating a project that would displace the Fun Fun Fun Fest, produced by C3 competitor Transmission Events. (The project has also forced temporary relocation of a number of other events and festivals: the Reggae Festival, the Urban Music Festival, shows at South by Southwest, a number of city races, and C3's own Austin Food & Wine Festival, currently on the calendar for the last weekend in April.)

Basic plan for Waller Creek revitalization
Basic plan for Waller Creek revitalization

More recently, dog lovers flashed their collective cuspids after learning that plans to realign the hike-and-bike trail running through Auditorium Shores – on PARD's project list for several years, but only moving forward with the sudden availability of funding – would significantly decrease the overall space of the popular off-leash dog area. Upwards of 200 people showed up to the master plan's third and final public hearing on Oct. 8, leaving some questioning whether or not the city will persist with the currently planned layout. Some charged that C3 had tied strings to its donation, and that the dog park realignment was at the company's insistence.

Setting aside for the moment the music-related politics of these displacements, even a quick drive by Auditorium Shores makes it clear that the grounds could use a fresh sodding. As for the dogs, Hensley argues that public spaces should be usable by all the public. "We're going back to the drawing board, and we're going to look for a way to find a little more room," she said, but "letting it stay completely off-leash and not allow for events and activities and general park use by general park users would be shortsighted on our part."

Whatever the final call on the dog park, the terms of the P3 stipulate that C3's $3.5 million goes only toward redevelopment; and Hensley insists the company hasn't played any role in determining the park's redesign. "C3 has not been a force at all, other than donating money through the Parks Foundation," she says. "They have put nothing in the form of a written request or demand. They've been very clear about getting their money back if the money doesn't go toward improvements, but they've made no demands on us, and they won't handle any maintenance or anything."

The Waller Creek Model

Several blocks east of Auditorium Shores is the Waller Creek Restoration Project, an initiative implemented in July 2010 to enhance "the ecological, hydrological, and open space value of the creek corridor," and also to create a "web of ... pedestrian and bicycle linkages to, across, and along the creek corridor to connect" Lady Bird Lake with the UT-Austin campus and points around Red River Street, East Austin, and Rainey Street, and promote "development activity and investment along the creek." That project has evoked applause – as well as suspicion – for its perceived likeness to San Antonio's River Walk. Supporters say it will turn flood plain into attractive, tax-producing commercial land, and tony up the neighborhood to boot. Behold, counter the naysayers, a sunken trail system that runs along a water source. Let us slap a Barriba Cantina along the side of it and start flipping pricey daiquiris.

In truth, the plans Michael Van Valken­burgh Associates and co-conspirators Thomas Phifer & Partners have laid out for the lower 1.5 miles of the dilapidated creek – extending from Lady Bird Lake up to around 15th Street – do not portend the mall-on-the-waterway that is the River Walk. Scheduling a completion date would be laughable right now – anybody who's walked along the Waller ditch knows there's still years of work to be done – but MVVA's artistic renderings project a wildly expansive green space that, in certain sections, would plant a wilderness right in the middle of our growing city.

"We don't envision the trail ever looking like the River Walk," explains Stephanie McDonald, executive director of the Waller Creek Conservancy, the nonprofit organization leading the development, which has already attracted more than $1.5 million in private donations, and secured $13 million in city bond funding with another $17 million promised over the next few years, and more than $60 million targeted, a number the WCC intends to match. "I think that's a model that's antiquated and stuck in a lot of people's heads, and it works really well in San Antonio – but we don't think it's Austin, so we're not seeing the trails being commercial areas."

Instead, McDonald sees Waller Creek as Austin's iteration of West Manhattan's High­ Line, a futuristic and entirely urban green space adapted from a series of abandoned and elevated train tracks. "I make the joke all the time: If you're in Waller Creek right now, I don't want to know what you're doing," she says. "There weren't many people living by the High Line [before its redevelopment at the turn of the century], either. It was an industrial manufacturing zone adjacent to the Meatpacking Dis­trict. The High Line was created in the 1930s as a way to move meat from the warehouses. It wasn't zoned as a place to bring people. It wasn't a place that people thought about going, ever.

"What I think about Waller Creek ... is that there isn't a neighborhood [around it]. We're trying to get more of a neighborhood, and we as a conservancy aren't doing this, as much as the city is doing this: making a lot of effort to bring more people Downtown."

Its achievement as an attraction could reap wonders for the city and local businesses, which may play a hand in the city's willingness to draft a joint development agreement – currently in conception – that would allow the WCC to, as Hensley puts it, "use the revenue from the fees they charge – for events, fundraising, or other private sources – to maintain the park, public spaces, and venues." That would essentially put the WCC on the hook for maintenance and upkeep, while removing that obligation – and authority – from PARD.

The different scenarios of the two major redevelopments speak to the complexities regularly associated with establishing and executing P3s. "It's not easy," says Hensley. "We have city attorneys and they have attorneys, and you really have to work on it. You have to balance your goals, and you have to make sure everybody's on the same page. Then you get into the negotiations of who's going to do what and how, and it gets a little sticky. You have to write the agreement of what has to go through legal [city attorney review]. It's back and forth, back and forth. No agency is going to enter into anything that doesn't at least keep them whole, or ends up costing them more than what they already have."

Turning New Ground

In short, there is more than one way to sustain a park system, and as Austin grows, city officials are slowly exploring the possibilities. They all require broad community engagement, sustainable funding sources, principles of equity across neighborhoods, and an effective commitment to community control of community resources. Whether all those aspects are achievable and can be kept in balance is a question that remains to be answered over the long term.

As the park advocates insist, PARD holds no silver bullet. Try as it might, the high cost of park maintenance, along with extreme variables pertaining to use and climate-related stresses, makes long-term, publicly funded sustainability a very difficult prospect, if not a pipe dream. How well the city succeeds in improving the state of its public spaces may heavily depend on how quickly Hensley and company can adapt and standardize the P3 process – and more fundamentally, how willing the Austin public will be to go along.

It's not a unique nor steadfast solution, but it's a place to start.

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