PARD moves to limit park use for fitness classes
At a Nov. 18 public meeting, the Austin Parks and Recreation Department rolled out a City Council-approved program to regulate and collect fees from fitness instructors, dog trainers, and yoga teachers who use city parks for group classes. According to criticism voiced at the meeting, the program itself needs to shape up.
Audience members hurled numerous complaints at PARD staff during the meeting, attended by about 25 instructors and trainers subject to the program. Chief among their concerns was the list of 21 parks where commercial use is to be allowed. It represents a fraction of the city's 251 parks and omits a number of parks regularly used for commercial fitness activities. Butler and Pease parks were the most notable omissions.
Fitness instructors complained that banning them from their regularly used parks could put them out of business. They also objected to concentrating fitness groups within a small number of parks, pointing out that it could accelerate wear and tear on those parks and crowd out other users. Moreover, instructors and their customers balked at being excluded from spaces funded by their tax dollars. "As a taxpayer, I'm kind of appalled at you handing out a list restricting use of these parks," Louise Pincoffs, a group fitness customer, told PARD staff. "We should be able to use any park we want. I just can't imagine being told that we can't go to one of our public parks to exercise."
Currently, instructors and trainers can teach classes in any city park without a permit. As of Jan. 2, 2012, that will change. Instructors who conduct group classes in city parks with four or more students at a time and charge for those classes must obtain a permit from PARD and pay a fee of 45 cents per student per session to the city, with a cap of $1,500 per six months. The permitting program covers fitness boot camps, exercise classes, yoga, dog training, and martial arts sessions. Mobile fitness activities, such as running and walking groups, are not required to obtain a permit or pay fees.
At the Nov. 18 meeting, Gilbert Hernandez, a PARD project manager, said that the list represented parks that PARD staff had deemed appropriate for commercial use. He conceded that the program was not perfect but said, "We have to start somewhere." He asked attendees to email PARD with parks that they want added to the list. Staff will consider those parks, he said, and issue a revised list this month. On the other hand, he noted, "We didn't do this in a vacuum." A 16-member task force helped PARD draft the permitting program last fall. Half of the task force represented businesses subject to the program.
But task force member Cody Butler of High Energy and Agility Training Boot Camp doesn't recall compiling or voting on a list of parks. Neither does task force member Bridgette Beinecke, who represented residents. "We never saw a list that said, 'Here are the parks that we are going to be confined to,'" Butler says. "No, we did not vote on a list of parks," Beinecke confirms.
The exclusion of Pease Park in particular had some fitness instructors wondering if pressure from park activists has knocked it off the list. However, Richard Craig, chair of the Pease Park Conservancy, says he has never discussed fitness groups with city staff and the conservancy does not oppose them. "The usual women's groups that have boot camps in the morning and afternoon ... that's certainly fine with us," Craig says. "We don't have a problem with it."
In a phone interview after the meeting, Hernandez said that Pease didn't make the list because of planned construction there – a fact that had slipped his mind during the Nov. 18 meeting, he says. A restoration project to mitigate erosion along Shoal Creek in Pease Park is scheduled for next year, but the park is not expected to be closed to the public during the project.
Butler Park is also slated for improvements, but Hernandez said PARD staff was seeking out areas within the park where fitness groups could conduct classes.
PARD staff say they began working on the permitting program two years ago in response to complaints from park users about group fitness classes obstructing sidewalks and stairways, blocking basketball and tennis courts, and using equipment, such as tires and elastic bands, that could damage park flora. PARD has not released the number of complaints against fitness groups it has received.
Fees collected from the program are slated for park maintenance and improvements. Hernandez estimates that between $10,000 and $20,000 will be collected the first year. He also noted that other vendors that use park space, such as businesses that rent kayaks and canoes on Lady Bird Lake, already pay a fee under existing city code regulating parks concessions.
These are the 21 parks which would still be available for commercial fitness use under the new Commercial Use of Dedicated Parkland permitting process. For more info, see www.austintexas.gov/parks/commercialuse.htm.
Auditorium Shores at Town Lake Metropolitan Park
Balcones District Park
Bartholomew District Park
Beverly S. Sheffield Northwest District Park
Bull Creek District Park
Circle C Ranch Metropolitan Park
Commons Ford Ranch Metropolitan Park
Davis-White Northeast District Park
Dick Nichols District Park
Dove Springs District Park
Garrison District Park
Givens District Park
Mabel Davis District Park
Mary Moore Searight Metropolitan Park
Onion Creek Metropolitan Park
Sir Svante Palm Neighborhood Park
Town Lake Metropolitan Park: Festival Beach
Town Lake Metropolitan Park: Lakeshore
Town Lake Metropolitan Park: Longhorn Shores
Walnut Creek Metropolitan Park
Zilker Metropolitan Park