Anger at Water Plant Plan Boils Over

City planners and residents at odds over future use of Guerrero Park

Indignantly opposed to city plans for a 30-acre, $227 million water treatment plant in the Roy G. Guerrero Colorado River Park announced last week, speakers from across Austin gushed frustration for nearly four solid hours at a special called Parks and Recreation Board public meeting held Monday night. Nearby residents, parks and environmental activists, and board members alike expressed disgust that the glossily presented plans were made public now after eight months of closed-door city discussion, with limited information on alternatives, a perceived fast track to construction, and reports of 4-3 city council support just days into the public process.

The board took no action on the plans Monday, reconsidering a motion to table the item, with the intent of remaining a stakeholder in the process. The plans are scheduled to go before public meetings of the Environmental Board on April 26, the Water and Waste Water Commission May 3, and City Council May 25. Council Member Raul Alvarez said on Tuesday that he's "not comfortable with what's on the table now, which is not to say that some mitigation package wouldn't be beneficial." He placed an item on today's council agenda to release the so-far-secret financial information on the other considered sites, something he feels will improve the public process. Karen Gross, Council Member Brewster McCracken's policy director, said McCracken was unhappy with the way the information was presented to the public – with Guerrero as the sole option. She said the project was introduced to council members as "these are the options, and we'll get feedback from the community."

Austin Water Utility director Chris Lippe insisted that the downtown Green Water Treatment Plant is overdue for retirement and that no viable rebuild options exist. His presentation, which included new data on site alternatives based on outcry at last week's plan debut, reiterated Guerrero Park's advantages from a construction perspective and essentially detailed the inferiority of alternative locations, including another city-owned site (the soon-to-be-decommissioned Govalle Wastewater Treatment Plant), as well as two privately owned Eastside properties in the vicinity. To the vocalized disappointment of board members, the data lacked any land appraisal figures. "The citizens of Austin have no one to represent them in this real estate transaction," said board member Hector Ortiz. Fellow member Mark Vane said he was "very disappointed with city analysis" and remarked later that the city's mitigation offer of $5 million for park improvements was "woefully low" and an insult. He asked that the city seek independent oversight in deriving site-cost comparison figures. Lippe said the long-planned Lake Travis treatment plant, now hamstrung over its proximity to the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, probably won't open until 2015 and warned that even with the expanded Ullrich plant coming online in June, growing water demand will trigger mandatory conservation by 2011 without a new plant.

While speakers, such as distinguished citizen-board veteran Mary Arnold, said implemented conservation wouldn't be a bad alternative to rushing to build a new water plant, the crowd of more than 100 unanimously rejected the use of the Guerrero parkland as anything but what long-running efforts have groomed it to be: a wild, undeveloped sanctuary in the densely populated Eastside and a crown jewel in the Austin Parks system. Many said the new plan came as a slap in the face, as it conflicts with both a council-approved park master plan and ongoing, combined neighborhood planning efforts, not to mention decades-long efforts to rid the Eastside of industrial facilities. "Densifying while taking parkland equals urban decay," said Larry Akers of Friends of the Park. And proponents of Proposition 1, the "open government" charter amendment on the upcoming May 13 municipal ballot, seized on the situation as an example of how online access to draft memos and meeting logs of city officials could have prevented another "done deal" from being presented to the public.

The breadth of the just-formed Save Guerrero Park Coalition, including the Austin Neighborhood Council, LULAC Council #650, PODER, Austin Parks Foundation, SOS Alliance, Clean Austin Campaign, and Friends of the Park – as well as individuals such as parks advocate Ted Siff, who is the treasurer for the PAC opposing the SOS-backed open-government amendment – speaks to the galvanized citywide opposition to the Guerrero plan. Susana Almanza of PODER, referring to wildlife including fox and deer that now inhabit the site, said "we're not the only ones being displaced from our community." Parks Board Chair Linda Guerrero, daughter of the park's namesake, said, "this is the last major tract of prime raw urban land," and represents the heart and soul of the community. "This decision will affect generation after generation," she said.

The Austin Parks Foundation is organizing a massive cleanup effort at Guerrero Park as part of their citywide It's My Park! Day community service event this Saturday, April 22. See www.austinparks.org/ItsMyParkDay.html for more info. More on the Save Guerrero Park effort is at www.poder-texas.org, and for more on the city's plan, go to www.ci.austin.tx.us/water.

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