A River Runs Through It
If the devil indeed is in the details, the planners of the Colorado River Park face demons both large and small, although the team appears armed to handle all comers. Though questions still lingered after a meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 18, at which stakeholders discussed implementation of a nearly finalized plan for 363 acres of parkland in East Austin, most of the tensions that dominated earlier meetings seemed a thing of the past. The stakeholders, from Little League moms and dads to conservationists and bird-watchers with habitat on their minds, appeared ready to embrace the park's development as laid out by Hargreaves and Associates, the landscape architects charged with creating a design.
Despite neighborhood support, community ownership of the facility -- much of which currently serves as an unofficial landfill and holds countless mattresses, dead animals, and old appliances -- will likely remain a source of contention in the remaining debate over the park. For while baseball fans are satisfied that they'll get their fields -- part of the planned Montopolis Sports Complex -- many East Austin residents feel that their wants and needs have been neglected for too long.
As a result, they don't entirely trust the city to finish the park in a timely fashion. In the words of neighborhood activist Daniel Llanes, "The only reason we still have this land undeveloped is because East Austin has been ignored." Beyond the concerns of such constituencies, major sticking points for the park include the location of a bike trail, and the willingness of Austin voters to approve another park bond to help increase sports facilities in the not-too-distant future.
Members of the environmental group People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources (PODER) would like to see two changes to the park plan before it is implemented. First, they want Austinites to remember where the park is located; toward that end, PODER member Susana Almanza explains, the Colorado River Park East would be a more appropriate name. "It's just to make sure that people know where the park is," says Almanza. "We're trying to bring attention to the stakeholders and make sure Montopolis doesn't get left out of the plan." (Tim Fulton of the Austin Parks Foundation (APF) says that a formal name has yet to be selected for the park, but suggests that it may ultimately be named for a person, not a place.)
Second, PODER calls for an environmental assessment that would catalog all the plants and wildlife that live along the river. In response, Mary Margaret Jones, one of Hargreaves' lead architects, has assured concerned activists that an assessment will take place as park planning moves forward. Likewise, the firm has tried to be sensitive to habitat corridors by suggesting that a bike trail the city wanted to place on the bluff above the river be moved away from the shoreline -- though this proposal has raised other issues for city staffers.
According to Stuart Strong, chief planner with the Austin Parks and Recreation Dept., the city has had to do some scrambling to match the desires of park advocates with the federal grant that would pay for a hike-and-bike trail through the park. Last year, before a master plan for the park had been developed, PARD put together a plan that would have extended trails along the south side of the Colorado River from Longhorn Dam to the Montopolis neighborhood, at a cost of $25,000.
The grant, provided through the Intermodal Surface Transportation Enhancement Act (ISTEA), earmarked $685,000 for the trail. Now a new plan must be finalized by September in order for PARD to take advantage of the federal funds. Strong says the city hopes to recoup the money lost on planning by enlisting the help of volunteers to help with surveying and engineering. The APF's Fulton says that despite the inconvenience, realigning the bike trail is not a major reason for concern.
He says the final remaining challenge to the park's development will be the proposed relocation of Krieg Fields, the huge city softball complex just below Longhorn Dam. The problem, says Fulton, is that the $10 million in bonds passed to pay for the new park didn't account for the cost of removing the fields and replacing them elsewhere. "We are very concerned about relocating the fields," Fulton says. "That will take additional funding that's not there."
Nonetheless, over the next couple of years, provided the park plan meets with city approval, the Colorado River Park could become East Austin's answer to Zilker Park. Fulton says he anticipates a draft plan will be available for public comment by the end of February.