Plotting a Park

by Lee Simmons and Lisa Tozzi

Town Lake Park

After a three-day charrette, Town Lake Park stakeholders agreed upon a tentative plan that places the new civic center (left) next to Palmer Auditorium. A 1,200-car parking garage wraps around the building.

This community planning thing isn't for the faint of heart or the weak of spirit. If you have any doubts about that, you should've been at Palmer Auditorium for a three-day charrette/giant Pictionary game last week to sketch the future of the south shore of Town Lake, that 54-acre political football, dotted by two buildings, surrounded by a moat of asphalt, and beholden to a bevy of interest groups.

It went something like this: Over there you've got ARTS* Center Stage reps who want to giddy-up on their plan to turn Palmer Auditorium into a performing arts center. Over there you've got your displaced Palmer users -- the Junior Leaguers and the Sami show sponsors -- concerned about the size and parking accessibility of a planned civic center. Over there you've got your Friends of the Parks, worried about preserving and expanding the area's green space. And then you've got the South Central Coalition of Neighborhoods (SCCN), who are fretting about how all this will play out in their front yards.

All gathered at Palmer last Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday to decide where on these 54 acres the aforementioned civic center and a planned 1,200-car parking garage (both funded by a rental-car tax approved by voters last November) should be sited. Not an easy task. The city-hired consultants, Denver-based EDAW, spent the afternoons and evenings drawing and redrawing plans on the fly as stakeholders called out ideas. (Kind of like trying to hang a picture with 60 or so people shouting, "A little to the left. No over. Over. Okay, now, over to the right...") In the end -- after scrapping about 50 or so visions for the area -- everyone emerged (limbs intact and no cuts and bruises to speak of) from the 23-hour planning powwow with one solid plan that no one hated.

Who would've thought it possible? Hardly anyone attending the first day of the charrette. Things were a bit tense. Parks and neighborhood representatives say they felt truly outnumbered by the so-called private interests (that is, ARTS and Junior League folk) who, they say, seemed more interested in parking lots than parkland. Attendees like Friends of the Parks's Larry Akers feared that the green space would be too fractured by asphalt, the buildings would be placed too far apart from one another, and that there were too few attendees interested in preventing any of this from happening.

Meanwhile, there was a growing fuss over whether the city did all it could to attract residents to the meetings. Even Michael Knox, development services process coordinator for the city, lamented that there were few participants who were not card-carrying members of one of the stakeholder groups. Why? Well, stakeholder liaison José Martinez says he doesn't know. He says 5,000 flyers were distributed to neighborhood associations, press releases were sent to local media outlets, and invitations went out to AISD schools asking students to attend. "I don't know what else you can do," said Martinez.

But still, it appears the city did the bare minimum to attract residents outside the stakeholder groups to the event. There was hardly any advance notice of the event in the local media, nor did it appear on any of the city's own published event schedules. When you consider the size and scope of this project, 5,000 flyers is pretty paltry.

Several e-mail APBs and phone calls on Wednesday helped boost attendance -- and morale. By the end of the charrette Thursday night, everyone signed off on a tentative plan siting the civic center and the parking garage close enough to Palmer so that the large stretches of green space that parks and neighborhood reps desire would be possible, yet not so close as to eliminate staging and service areas needed for Palmer and civic center users. Everyone seemed to be friends again. Well, more friendly anyway. Some, like SCCN rep Ellen Johnson, were even talking (albeit sleepily) about how much fun the whole marathon was. "It's just so exciting and interesting to be a part of this process," she gushed.

Of course, this tug-of-war over the south shore didn't begin with last week's charrette, and it's unlikely to end with it. Last week's horse-trading showed that these stakeholder groups can work together, but there remains some distrust between the differing factions. And there are still major issues to be worked out, including what to do with Riverside Drive, which proved a sticking point throughout the negotiations. Under the latest plan, Riverside would be ripped out altogether and replaced by additional green space. But while aesthetically that seems the best solution, SCCN member Jeff Jack said some were concerned that closing off Riverside may send vehicle traffic through neighborhood streets.

The results of the charrette were presented to councilmembers' aides Friday morning. EDAW consultants will meet with the city and stakeholders again May 3 to fine-tune the tentative concept plan for the park. (Let's hope there is a better effort to draw residents to this one). Officials say a final draft of the proposal could reach the council dais for approval by late June.

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