Great Streets, Not So Great Parks

Battle at the park over Riverside Drive

To design Town Lake Cultural Park, a 54-acre green space and arts area conceived as the Central Park Austin Doesn't Have, landscape architect Earl Broussard prepared two alternatives. One maintained Riverside Drive, the four-lane street that runs parallel to the waterfront and through the park. The second treated Riverside as if it didn't exist between South First and Lamar -- a reflection of the wishes of park stakeholders, who for years have advocated completely shutting down the road in order to create a calmer, car-free environment for pedestrians and cyclists. "The best thing for Town Lake is for Riverside to be gone," said Broussard, who is also designing Republic Square and the state Capitol grounds. "The road is so hideous the way it is now. The four lanes rip right through the middle of the park."

However, the city Transportation Dept.'s new Downtown Access and Mobility Plan (D.A.M.P.), a two-year project conducted at the behest of the Downtown Austin Alliance and nearing completion, recommends keeping Riverside open. Closing the street completely would transfer too many cars onto Barton Springs Road and the South First/Cesar Chavez area, and create unacceptably long traffic delays, the city traffic engineers concluded. In rejecting Broussard's recommendation, the study also goes against the Town Lake Park Master Plan -- formulated through a public process led by a stakeholder group consisting of the South Central Coalition of Neighborhoods (which includes the Bouldin Creek and Zilker Neighborhood Associations, among others), the Junior League of Austin, Friends of the Parks, Arts Center Stage, and others.

As a concession, Transportation, Planning, and Sustainability Dept. staff's recommendation reduces Riverside to two lanes and adds curves to slow down traffic and mitigate disruptions. Nevertheless, Broussard says, "There's a lot of emotions on the table."

Last month, in a letter to the City Council titled "Where's the Park in the Town Lake Cultural Park?" Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association President Sean Kelly criticized the city's traffic study as "greatly flawed." (Currently before the council, the Bouldin Creek neighborhood plan recommends closing Riverside, though not as a top priority.) "Rather than start from the point of 'How do we close Riverside?,' as recommended by park designers following preliminary studies, and as agreed on by stakeholders, this study appears to have been modeled to result in a recommendation diametrically opposed to this," Kelly wrote. And he's supported by a 1999 traffic study which concluded that closing Riverside wouldn't significantly impact the downtown traffic grid.

But traffic engineer Gordon Derr disputes that, saying that because the 1999 study focused only on streets in the Town Lake area, it wasn't as comprehensive as the Transportation Dept.'s new D.A.M.P. study, which considers streets both north and south of the water. Derr agrees that closing Riverside is the optimal choice for the park. But he says that after testing a number of roadway configurations and considering the many downtown development-related proposals on the table, his department concluded that closing Riverside wouldn't work in the near term. "We're trying to look at the whole system and how it works together," he said.

Meanwhile, park stakeholders continue referring to the older study, which better supports their argument. "They're taking it for everything they've got," said Robert Holland, an architect with the city's Public Works Department who is overseeing the Town Lake project. "Not that I blame them -- they're motivated by a desire to benefit the community." Holland believes the new study is more substantive than the 1999 one. "We were working in a bit of a vacuum," he said of that study.

Making Riverside a two-lane road is mainly a side effect of the D.A.M.P.'s much broader objective: to examine ways to revamp the downtown traffic grid and accommodate the Downtown Austin Alliance's "Great Streets" downtown beautification program. DAA Executive Director Charlie Betts reiterates support for neighborhoods and the Town Lake park concept, but expects his organization to endorse city staff's study -- including its recommendation for a two-lane Riverside -- out of concern for maintaining access to downtown. The Alliance should make its final decision on the study within the week.

Friends of the Park stakeholder representative Larry Akers, who has been involved with the park project since 1984, expresses no antipathy towards the Alliance, but doesn't believe their program should compromise the one already developed for Town Lake. "This could be a 'great park,'" he says. "But if we have to sacrifice Austin's central park to accomplish one part of the unfunded, unadopted Great Streets proposal, we need to re-evaluate our priorities." Even narrowing Riverside won't be enough to maintain the park's integrity, he said, because the road will impact green space and disrupt bike access to Pfluger Bridge from the south. "The park's supposed to be for pedestrians, bikes, and skateboards. All of that doesn't mix well with cars. And there is not enough land there to buffer another significant roadway."

Akers hasn't yet seen the most recent draft of the D.A.M.P., which Transportation officials plan to finalize and release to the public in the next few weeks. But city staff floated their current recommendation on Riverside back in the fall, he says, "before any reasonable modeling was done. I think this clearly indicates their disposition to derail the Master Plan on its most critical design element." The venue-tax-funded budget for the park includes money to remove Riverside, he adds, whereas no money has been set aside to rebuild it as a two-lane road -- a project the city estimates will cost $2.2 million.

Aside from Riverside, another development recently triggered Akers and other stakeholders' concerns about the park's future. At a recent progress meeting with the Parks and Recreation Department, maps showed that a modestly sized Austin Energy substation would be enlarged and relocated behind the Dougherty Arts Center. Several attendees were shocked. Earlier this week, Broussard -- who credits new Austin Energy General Manager Juan Garza and PARD Director Jesus Olivares for "thinking outside the box" -- told the Chronicle that the utility and PARD are working hard to relocate the substation in a different spot. "It's not a done deal," he said.

For now, neither is the future of Riverside Drive. Akers says park stakeholders hope to meet with Transportation officials before May. The City Council -- which must approve the D.A.M.P. for it to be executed -- is expected to receive copies of the final version in June. Meanwhile, the Transportation Department expects to present the plan to the Parks Board's land and facilities subcommittee on April 23.

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Riverside, Town Lake Cultural Park, Earl Broussard, Riverside Drive, Downtown Mobility Study, South Central Coalition of Neighborhoods, Sean Kelly, Gordon Derr, Robert Holland, Public Works Dept., Downtown Austin Alliance, Charlie Betts, Larry Akers, Juan Garza, Austin Energy

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