Developing Stories: Town Lake Trail - Closing the Gap
Town Lake Trail takes aerobic sprint toward reality
Long a civic dream, the completion of a continuous Town Lake Trail a 10.1-mile hike-and-bike loop from MoPac to Longhorn Dam, connecting the river's north and south shores is taking an aerobic sprint toward reality. With funding in hand from private donors, a number of whom received a personal call from the mayor, the nonprofit Town Lake Trail Foundation has commissioned the first step in the project: the Riverside Boardwalk Investment Study.
The problem: a 1.1-mile gap in the trail, along the river's south shore, where land is privately owned on both sides of I-35. The gap makes it difficult, unpleasant, and dangerous for recreational runners, walkers, bikers, and trail commuters to use the full trail as a continuous loop. The lack of connectivity between the east and west sides also contributes to congestion on the more heavily traveled west end of the trail; as many as 15,000 people hit the trail on a nice day, and it has up to 1.5 million visitors a year. The waterfront trail currently dead-ends near the Austin American-Statesman, not to reappear again until Lakeshore Boulevard. Determined aerobicizers must use surface streets, including a potentially dangerous and decidedly soul-dampening crossing of I-35 and its frontage roads.
Ideally, some missing trail segments can be completed on land, if easements can be acquired from the landowners. But other portions due to topography, existing structures, or obstinate owners will require an overwater boardwalk trail. This more-expensive solution would drive the project's total cost to more than $10 million, a daunting price tag that had stalled serious pursuit of the project, which was first envisioned in the mid-1980s. But the recent energetic advocacy of the young Town Lake Trail Foundation (www.townlaketrail.org) and its partners serendipitously converging with a strong economy and a marathon-runnin', Downtown-revitalizin' mayor has brought the project back to life, with the support of the Parks and Recreation Department. The Riverside Boardwalk Investment Study, estimated at $40,000, will be executed by Austin's own SEC Planning; the consultant will create a master trail map for land/boardwalk solutions and designs, engineering, public involvement, costs, and funding. A first draft is expected within six weeks.
"Finishing the Town Lake Trail is really important, not just for me personally but for our entire community," said Will Wynn, discussing why he shook the cup for the investment study. "I've been running the trail since first coming to Austin in 1981 and have been an avid, almost daily runner on the trail these past few years. I know firsthand what a crummy experience it is to have to leave the trail and run along Riverside Drive and cross I-35."
Donors for the study include Luci Baines Johnson (whose mother, Lady Bird Johnson, chaired the 1971 Town Lake Beautification Committee, which initially drove creation of the trail), greenifying AMD, and the Downtown Austin Alliance. Notable among several development and real estate community donors is attorney Richard Suttle who represents CWS Capital Partners in negotiating an easement with PARD to extend the trail on CWS' land (wanting, in exchange, a variance to encroach on the waterfront overlay). Big chunks of the needed $10 million-plus could come from developers seeking increased entitlements to build bigger, higher projects along Town Lake; the developers asking council for a Lakeshore planned unit development, for example, potentially could give upward of $1 million to be earmarked for the Riverside Boardwalk. Constellation Property Group, developers of the high-rise Star Riverside condos, recently pledged to give as much as $250,000 toward the cost of a boardwalk under I-35, adjoining its site.
The Town Lake Trail Foundation has recently completed numerous trail-improvement projects, including Lou Neff Point and the Zilker Bluffs Tree Grove. "We've been encouraging people to be healthier, and it's worked; there's now more people out on the trail than ever before," said foundation board Chair Griffin Davis. Beyond the boardwalk project, said Davis, the trail has many other needs for repair and improvement. "The $1 million in the [2006 voter-approved park] bonds gets us about 10 to 15 percent of the way there. It's a great start, but by no means does it take care of all the existing needs on the trail."
In early March, Jose Pablo Agundiz, 32, was fatally struck by a car while walking on the I-35 frontage road over Town Lake. His body was later found underneath the interstate. "We can get the Riverside Boardwalk built and help prevent further fatalities like this one," Davis said. "We need the public to understand the danger the pedestrian crossing at I-35 represents. We had three fatalities before we got the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge built. I hope Mr. Agundiz's tragedy is the last one we have to face at this location."