Close to Outrage

A letter sent to city leadership by Sarah Campbell, who recently retired from a 20-year career with the city's Parks & Recreation Department, where she was a senior planner.

Sarah Campbell
Sarah Campbell (Photo By John Anderson)

Note: The letter below was sent to city leadership on Oct. 23 by Sarah Campbell, who recently retired from a 20-year career with the city's Parks & Recreation Department, where she was a senior planner. Recipients included the mayor, City Council, city manager and assistant city managers, as well as all members of the Parks Board and the Planning Commission, the bodies that review and vote on variance requests within the Waterfront Overlay ordinance, which establishes protective development regulations for the land fronting Town Lake and certain tributary creeks. – K.G.

Dear elected and appointed officials and hired staff,

I am close to outrage at the insidious message coming from too many of you that the Waterfront Overlay ordinance is not to be fully enforced, that major variances (from the setbacks in particular) are going to be supported and/or approved by you whether you have a formal review role or not, and that City review staff are expected to approve requests for variances. And they have and will do so in order not to jeopardize their jobs. The Waterfront Overlay ordinance is one of the most far-sighted the City has. In fact, it was written and approved to address times that Austin is now experiencing. It is not some outdated piece of City code. Written 20+ years ago, it encourages residential uses along Town Lake and ground-floor building uses that generate pedestrian traffic and create people places – urban planning and development principles that some of you think have just become vogue.

Many, many American waterfront cities have spent millions and millions of dollars reclaiming their waterfronts from derelict industrial development that Austin was fortunate enough not to have suffered to a great degree. These cities' reclamations have mostly resulted in the creation of parks, open spaces, museums and aquaria, and similar cultural and community facilities that are open to the public and generate foot traffic, the life blood of the sort of inner city everyone now thinks is the answer for Austin.

Austin doesn't have to do much more waterfront reclamation. It has Town Lake Park. The City needs to complete the trail. The waterfront re-developers will provide needed segments, and then say they have done sooooo much. Then they'll say "oh, but the Parks Department can't afford to take care of the parkland it has now, the Parks Department doesn't even want this land, why should we be required to provide more?" READ the ordinance (25-2-691ff). It does not require land donations to the City. Rather, it requires open space on private land to complement the parkland with developments of the kind that the public will use. Witness the Four Seasons Hotel public spaces melding seamlessly with adjacent parkland and sidewalks that connect to the trail below. This is a fabulous ordinance and provides Austin the opportunity it needs to create a truly superior waterfront for all Austinites, all Texans and all our visitors.

We can have much needed inner city residential AND increased open space along the lake. It is NOT an either/or choice except in the arguments provided by the developers and their hired agents. I have long thought it too bad that development information required to be submitted to the City doesn't include true financial statements to prove that if a developer can't get what's wanted, the project will fail, as I know you hear time and time again. Wouldn't that change their stories? Wouldn't a developer look pretty naive if not downright stupid to submit a financial package to prove a total lack of skill in the field of land development. I wonder what sort of fun the news media would have with a story like that. But it will be a proverbial cold day in hell before a developer will be required to submit such information in Texas. And in the meantime, for some reason, some of you will continue to fall for developer lines about needing to have variances in order to make their projects financially viable, and without the variances, they will just have to take their money and their grand plans elsewhere. As if they don't know exactly what they are getting into when they consider buying property along Town Lake in Austin, Texas. Give the citizens the benefit of the doubt, not the developers.

I live in the South River City Citizens Neighborhood Association area, adjacent to the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association area. The citizens of our two neighborhoods have had to fight at least four development proposals in the last year that fall within the Waterfront Overlay boundaries and claim to bring much needed residential opportunities to "downtown." Three of the four requested major variances from the setbacks established by the Waterfront Overlay ordinance, and the majority of you people, elected, hired or appointed, were or are willing to approve the variances, so we hear. And those few of us citizens out here who know about the ordinance are left to fight the insidious message with which I began this letter to you. This is outrageous governance. We citizens must truly exhaust ourselves to remind you we are here, that we don't want these variances to be granted. So far, neighborhood by neighborhood we must rally and fight but for the good of so many, many more in the long run. Don't fall for the short run.

Know that the written purpose of the Waterfront Overlay (25-2-175) is simple and elegant: "to promote the harmonious interaction and transition between urban development and the park land and shoreline of Town Lake and the Colorado River." Defending it is another matter altogether. Support one of the best ordinances Austin has ever formulated into the Land Development Code.

Most sincerely,

Sarah Campbell

(Editor's note: The Waterfront Overlay ordinance is in the Zoning section of the city's Land Development Code, which is available online at

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