The Austin Chronicle

The Name Game Visits Auditorium Shores

By Amy Smith, May 30, 2014, News

City Council's decision last week to put the brakes on renaming part of Auditorium Shores after civic leader Vic Mathias may have created one of the more awkward moments in the city's renaming history.

Mayor Lee Leffingwell, chief sponsor of the resolution, had called for immediate approval of the name change of the park's east lawn, which would have bypassed the customary 90-day renaming process for city parks. Council took similar hasty actions (but not without some protest) in changing Town Lake to Lady Bird Lake, after the former first lady, and naming the hike-and-bike trail for former mayor Roy Butler and his wife Ann.

Mathias, who died last year, was CEO of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce from 1956 to 1983 and co-founded Austin Aqua Fest, an annual event held at Audi­tor­ium Shores for much of its lifetime.

With Mathias' elderly widow Helen Math­i­as, his children and grandchildren, and prominent figureheads on hand May 22 for what they expected to be a ceremonial name-changing, things hit a rough patch when resolution co-sponsor Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole instead countered with a motion to put the proposal through the 90-day process.

Cole wore a pained expression as she explained that questions had been raised about whether Mathias had been involved in the city's repeal of the 1968 Fair Hous­ing Ordinance. She said her office did not find any evidence linking Mathias to the repeal, but she thought the right thing to do would be to let the renaming process run its course, which includes a review by the Parks and Recreation Board. Cole, who is African-American, recalled the city's civil rights battles relating to fair housing, noting, "The deed to my home says no coloreds allowed."

Leffingwell fumed over Cole's comments, calling the suggestion that Mathias may have played a role in the fair housing repeal "vicious rumors." In the end the vote was six to one (Leffingwell) to delay the park's name change.

Several civic boosters who spoke on Mathias' behalf sported what appeared to be Aqua Fest skipper pins on their lapels. Yet indeed, part of Aqua Fest's early history was not exactly a shining moment in the city's history. The event, which was initiated to showcase the city's water attractions in an attempt to boost the economy, originated at Festival Beach in East Austin, in what was then a predominantly Mexican-Amer­ican neighborhood. Residents opposed the loud ruckus created by the festival's motorboat races on Town Lake. Protests turned violent in 1978, ultimately sinking the boat races and leading to the prohibition of motorized boats on the lake. The festival relocated to Auditorium Shores and morphed into a music festival.

Council Member Mike Martinez provided the second to Cole's motion and said that while he supported changing the name of the east lawn to Vic Mathias Shores, he also believed the delay was appropriate in light of the iconic nature of the park. The east end of Auditorium Shores is the site of numerous special events each year. The park is currently undergoing a makeover.

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