Parks and Rec: If You Build It ...

Is Austin's appetite for fountains bigger than its wallet?

The view from the north side of Palmer Events Center
The view from the north side of Palmer Events Center (Photo by Richard Whittaker)

What to do with the water features in Butler Park? A fountain needs fixing, and a pond, the Parks and Recreation board has decided, needs to be left alone – but the bigger question is whether the city really thinks about long-term costs when approving new park projects.

The Liz Carpenter Fountain opened in 2007 as an interactive water feature but soon developed mechanical and sanitation problems because the city and the architects underestimated how popular it would be and how many people would want to play in it. The Parks and Recreation Department closed it earlier this year for repairs (see "Naked City," May 14), and at the board's May 25 meeting, staff announced plans to reopen it on June 15. After initial repairs to the fountain and its control system, staff will start hyperchlorinating the water to kill off waterborne diseases and revising the cleaning schedule. These short-term fixes will be expensive and involve closing the fountain for up to two days a week. Long-term renovations, including ultraviolet water-treatment equipment, will come with a substantial price tag.

While attendees applauded staff's commitment to reopening the fountain, there was less unanimity on the proposal to convert the pool on the north side of the Palmer Events Center into the latest in a series of Bloch Cancer Survivor Plazas around America. The plan would cover much of the existing pond with a concrete walkway and R.A. Bloch Cancer Foundation-approved statues, and it has been condemned as franchised art that sets a bad precedent in branding public spaces. It will also be expensive: While the foundation has offered a $1 million donation, cost estimates go as high as $2 million for construction plus a $1 million endowment to cover maintenance. While that would leave the city $2 million short, former Austin Neigh­borhoods Council President Jeff Jack warned that rejecting Bloch's offer could discourage future private donors and compared the attacks on the off-the-peg components of the design to the French art establishment rejecting the Impressionists. Arts activist Ann Graham rebutted this by quoting Arthouse Executive Director Sue Graze that "there are definitely times when one is obliged to say 'no' to a substantial gift." Ultimately that's what the board did, voting 5-0 not to support the plan and leaving its proponents with a tough challenge if and when council takes it up.

With one existing commitment backed and a new obligation rejected by the board, PARD Director Sara Hensley warned that the project approval and budgeting process needs its own renovations. Noting that her department has $870 million in deferred maintenance, she warned, "We have to say we can't build it if we can't maintain it."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Butler Park, Liz Carpenter Fountain, Bloch Cancer Survivor Plaza, Jeff Jack, Sara Hensley

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