Then There's This: Showdown at the Springs

Does the pool's south side need a makeover?

Barton Springs' south lawn is a good place to hang out.
Barton Springs' south lawn is a good place to hang out. (Photo by John Anderson)

The decades-long battle over the Springs has moved to the south side – that is, the south side of Barton Springs Pool, where design changes are in the works for the back entrance. In its current state, that entrance features a dirt parking lot, a pathway leading to a gate, and a small ticket booth where one gains entry to an expansive, leafy lawn overlooking the spring-fed pool.

There is nothing pretentious about the south entrance. Among pool regulars, its rough-hewn character is precisely what one camp loves about the place and what another camp seeks to improve and build upon. The latter group is particularly critical of the pool area's chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, which they say is more appropriate for a prison yard or an exotic game ranch than a community asset that attracts more than 700,000 people a year.

To this naked eye, however, the south view of the fence is hardly a distraction, given the amount of greenery surrounding and covering the railing.

Emotion Spilleth Over

The proposed grounds improvements (PDF download here) are part of a 2009 master plan, some aspects of which have deeply divided a community of daily swimmers committed to protecting the Springs and its federally protected habitants – the Barton Springs salamander. The disagreements are so intense that a verbal "ruckus" – as one observer described it – broke out in May during a joint committee meeting of the Parks and Recreation and Environmental boards. The next time the committee convened, on June 28, a representative of the Human Resources Depart­ment was on hand to facilitate public comments.

After hearing a presentation from Brian Lar­son of the architectural firm of Larson Burns and Smith, more than a dozen people spoke on the various design options for the fence and gate, a new ticket booth, and whether to move the fence line back to expand the south lawn by about an acre.

In the end, the committee voted unanimously to recommend the lawn expansion. They voted 4-1 on a combination of two fence options – wire mesh and wrought iron – with a woven wire mesh gate with limestone columns; the gate design garnered a 3-2 split with Linda Guerrero (Parks and Rec) and Mary Gay Maxwell (Environmental) voting no. (Two other styles of ornamental iron gate designs had drawn the most ire from speakers opposed to dramatic changes.)

The committee also said the ticket booth should stay at its current location rather than on the proposed right side of the entrance gate. No decision was made about the design of a proposed air-conditioned booth. Nor did the committee address one of the hotter topics that caused emotions to run high at the previous meeting – the construction of a concrete path and paved overlook on the south lawn. Their non-appearance on the agenda didn't stop people from talking about them, however. The angle of the lawn already serves as an overlook, said the Sierra Club's Roy Waley. "Why do we need something that looks like a big UFO rocket-launching pad?"

The plans for the grounds will make the rounds at city boards and commissions and then move to City Council for final approval. One element of the proposal – making the south side accessible for people with disabilities – is a political no-brainer, but how that plan will be executed is less certain.

Pools Closed elsewhere

The seeds for the pool's master plan grew out of the volunteer work of nonprofit Friends of Barton Springs Pool, which Robin Cravey founded in 2006 to help clean the pool during an especially bad outbreak of algae bloom. Through the cleanup efforts of volunteers, the Friends formed a relationship with city staff and the council, which ultimately opened the door to a Friends-envisioned master plan for the pool that included short-term projects (such as overall maintenance, tree care, and removing overhead wires), as well as long-term endeavors (construction of a bath house on the south side has probably been the most contentious issue). Once the master plan was professionally crafted, council signed off on it in 2009 and committed more than $6.2 million toward a short list of projects.

Since then, the cost of the undertaking has climbed upward as some projects moved forward and others remained in limbo due in large measure to divisions within the Springs community – the Friends and one set of regulars pressing to move forward on the changes, and the Save Our Springs Alli­ance and another set of regulars arguing that available funds should go toward deferred maintenance and tree watering. The opposition side stepped up its game once staff and consultants began directing their attention to the pool's rugged south side in an attempt to fix what's not broken. That's why it's so popular.

The biggest irony? Summer is here and the Parks and Recreation Department website lists five neighborhood and municipal pools that are closed. Not "temporarily closed," just "closed." They include Bartholomew, Kealing, St. Johns, Palm, and Odom.

What's wrong with this picture?

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Barton Springs Pool
The Pain of Change at the Springs
The Pain of Change at the Springs
Debate centers on a paved parking lot and pathway to the pool's south side

Elizabeth Pagano, Feb. 15, 2013

Then There's This: Pool Plan Panned and Lauded
Then There's This: Pool Plan Panned and Lauded
Council will consider grounds for improving Barton Springs

Amy Smith, Aug. 31, 2012

More Then There's This
Then There's This: Final Column
Then There's This: Final Column
Do not stand at my grave and weep – I'm just heading off into the unknown

Amy Smith, Aug. 22, 2014

Then There's This: The Awesome Power of Women
Then There's This: The Awesome Power of Women
Political group aims to increase voter turnout and so much more

Amy Smith, Aug. 15, 2014


Barton Springs Pool, master plan, Parks and Recreation, Environmental Board, Friends of Barton Springs, Save Our Springs Alliance

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle