Council Blocks Bloch

Council Rejects Cancer Park to Preserve Greenbelt

Shelley Bishop was diagnosed with breast cancer more than a year ago, and though she has overcome it, the grandmother of six still faces a consuming fear that continues to draw her to the Cancer Survivors Plaza in Houston. On a recent autumn day in Hermann Park, she is standing under a domed gazebo, considering life's renewal powers at a fountain in the center of the plaza, and will later read a series of inspirational plaques that she credits with "easing the suffering." That suffering is uniquely hers, but through the day, others touched by the disease will also find a wellspring of comfort in the plaza's message: "Hope and motivation." Those are the words of Richard Bloch, co-founder of the tax-return empire, H&R Block, and the benefactor of 14 similarly themed "tributes to life" across the United States. In 1979, he outlived a diagnosis of terminal lung cancer, and expressed his gratitude through newfound altruism. As you're probably aware by now, he offered to bestow that same generosity upon Austin in the form of a $1 million plaza along the Town Lake greenbelt, but the council rejected the site last week and requested that Bloch find another. But according to local resident and UT grad Milosav Cekic, Bloch's right-hand architect, the preferred site is non-negotiable, meaning the deal is off unless the council reconsiders. The council is holding fast and needless to say, those familiar with the ravages of cancer have nearly taken up arms, spurred, no doubt, by two articles in the local daily that brought a new level of subjectivity to the front page and cast the council as cold-blooded dolts insensitive to cancer. Angry citizens everywhere tied up council offices in a phone-calling frenzy, and, rallying for a re-vote, vented their fury on a website created by political operative Don Martin, who recently lost a close friend to cancer.

On the face of it, the rejection -- the doing of Daryl Slusher, Beverly Griffith, Gus Garcia, and Ronney Reynolds -- seemed phenomenally unlikely. About as unlikely, in fact, as seeing Reynolds arm-in-arm with three-quarters of the so-called environmental majority, waxing rhapsodic about the need to preserve Austin's greenbelt and the "river that runs through it." If he's trying to hoodwink the environmental vote in his bid for mayor, he'd have better luck attending council meetings in barefeet and algae ties (even then, they'd never forgive his past as veteran lapdog of the business community). On the other hand, Garcia, Griffith, and Slusher have been diehard (somewhat) defenders of Austin's greenery and though fleetingly detailed in the daily, the three had legitimate concerns in voting against the site.

There was, for instance, the recommendation of the Parks Board, which had snubbed the site for fear that the monument would beget similar requests for more monuments that would destroy precious green chunks of Town Lake's greenbelt. As Roberta Crenshaw, the grande dame of Austin's nationally recognized park system, articulated with poetic exuberance at last Thursday's meeting, "Austin is that little strip of beauty that follows Town Lake. It is our greatest resource. Don't start whittling it away."

But in the eyes of downtown promotion groups like the Downtown Arts Alliance and the Downtown Commission, the proposed one-acre plaza would be uniquely eloquent and symbolic, richly enhancing the grassy bank at the western side of Cesar Chavez and Congress. "This is one of our prime areas, but it needs to be more than just a running trail, it needs to be part of our urban design fabric," notes architect George Villalva, a member of the Downtown Commission who supports the Town Lake site.

More importantly, says Bloch, the Cancer Park's positive message would offer a panacea to cancer patients. Cekic's design for Austin is much more elaborate than the plaza he designed for Bloch in Houston. The Austin version would have three walkways tapered like rays of light leading from the sidewalk at the corner of Congress and Cesar Chavez to a sculpture called "Cancer... there is hope," depicting life-size figures passing through a tunnel of rectangles, entering in depression and exiting in jubilation. The sculpture, and its message, would be easily seen not only by those jogging on the trail, but also by passing vehicular traffic. Behind that, granite boulders would support a 60-foot copper "broken ring" that would provide a vantage point of the setting sun behind Town Lake and would enclose the monument's centerpiece -- a circular fountain that would lift and rotate a three-foot wide, two-ton granite ball: "A symbol of hope, of simple forces moving mountains," says Cekic. The fountain would brim over to a 27-foot waterwall accessible from the sculpture by a looping walkway. Someone contemplating the waterwall from its base would experience an uplifting sensation, says Cekic: "The ascent of the spirit into a higher consciousness." From the waterwall, two paths would lead to the jogging trail, which would not be altered. On a more practical note, the plaza would also contain a canopied computer with the names of survivors, their specific cancers, and an address. "Ultimately, we hope it could at least save a few lives," says Cekic.

Cekic, who does the lion's share of his architectural work outside Austin, says he has put as much as $20,000 into the design -- pro-bono -- thrilled at the prospect of leaving such a legacy on his home turf. But while he is one of the city's most well-respected urban visionaries, having served on the citizens' Design Commission for almost a decade and having been instrumental in Austin's "new urbanism" movement, some complain that the design is a little too grandiose for Austin's greenbelt. "This is a beautiful concept, but I don't think it belongs here," said Slusher at Thursday's council meeting. "The best thing about the hike-and-bike trail is that it is natural."

The Arts Commission had similar concerns, voting against the site partly for that reason. Also, like the Parks Board, arts commissioners worried about which group would pick up the estimated $30,000 annual maintenance. Of the $1 million for the project, $100,000 would establish an endowment fund, providing about $8,000 a year for maintenance. Cekic says the difference would be made up by private donations, and bigwigs from Austin's Chamber and downtown development cliques had marched to the council meeting en masse to volunteer elbow grease and money. Still, there were no funding guarantees, no specific plan, and even plaza-supporter Eric Mitchell expressed qualms about the lack of one.

Politics is power and territory, especially in Austin, and many have complained about Bloch's take-it-or-leave-it attitude, considering it an affront to the city's self-determination. "I'm concerned that someone would make a gift like this to the city and then demand that it be placed where they want," says Rosemary Castleberry, chair of the Parks Board.

Critics of the Town Lake site wonder why Bloch can't place the park in one of the five sites that city officials say would make everyone happy. One site suggested by the Parks Board was at Waterloo Park on Red River, right next to Brackenridge Hospital and the Ronald McDonald House on 15th St., where parents who are strapped for cash stay while their children are receiving cancer treatment at one of the area hospitals. Proponents for that site say that the Cancer Park would be appreciated by the families of cancer patients, both young and old, at Brack and at St. David's up the street, not to mention the respite and hope it would offer to the patients themselves.

But Cekic says Bloch would probably turn down the Waterloo site for the same reason he already turned down another suggested site at Wooldridge Park, on Guadalupe between the Austin History Center and the County Courthouse: not enough traffic. The key is visibility, explains Cekic, and that's what Town Lake offers. In fact, when the Kansas City millionaire took a trip to Austin last summer to scout for possible places, he was on the verge of giving up until he happened upon Town Lake.

Despite a warning from Cekic that the $1 million offer will expire unless Bloch gets what he wants, Bloch confides he isn't yet ready to give up just yet: "I'm going to sit and wait to see how the political situation changes." He's even willing to consider other sites if the council won't come around on Town Lake. Considering the extent to which public pressure has already mounted, Bloch seems confident that the plaza will be built. But, he adds, the site must have high volumes of traffic. "I'd go to any other site that is equally as good. This is not for us, this is for the people of Austin. If the people want it, they'll find a site as good as" Town Lake.

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