Point Austin: If You Build It, They Will Come
Arguments over infrastructure reflect community visions
Back in 2014, City Council pondered at length a development proposal for Walter E. Long Metropolitan Park. The developer (Decker Lake Golf LLC) proposed to build two professional golf courses in an unused section of parkland, and in return would provide not only an income stream to the city (and discounted greens fees for residents), but adjacent recreational amenities (trails, sports fields, etc.), none of this possible in the Parks and Recreation Department budget. The immediate neighbors (e.g., Colony Park) mostly supported the proposal, in part because they expected it to lead to broader economic development, jobs, hotels, shops, etc., along with the potential tourist income from anticipated PGA tournaments.
But the project hit a strong headwind of (mostly Westside) public opposition – to the private money, to an "elite" sport like golf, to potential water use, and especially to a leasehold on parklands that would possibly evade a City Charter requirement for a public referendum on such arrangements. Accordingly, the 2014 Council deferred the proposal to the new 10-1 Council, and a few months later, the new Council also deferred the project ... indefinitely.
Ultimately, Council allocated major bond money to the public recreational development of Long Metropolitan Park, expanded the PARD maintenance budget accordingly, and thereby embarked on the recreational development of thousands of acres of parkland that has essentially lain fallow and unavailable to Austinites for more than 50 years. In a few years, Northeast residents will be able to enjoy a recreational destination that should rival Zilker Park, along with nearby economic development drawn by park visitors.
Actually, that last paragraph is fiction. After the collapse of the Decker Lake Golf proposal (reportedly still floating around), Council asked PARD to prepare an updated master plan (the first since 1968, shortly after the city acquired the land), and eventually staff will deliver another grand proposal for which no public funding is available.
Kick or Swim
This fairly recent history came flashing back to me in the last few weeks, during the debates over the proposal by the Columbus Crew professional soccer franchise to move to Austin. The team also had its sights on city parkland – specifically, Butler Shores, where Lady Bird Lake meets Barton Creek – but thanks to widespread public opposition, team owners say they've dropped their interest in Butler and hope the city will consider other potential sites for a deal, including Guerrero Park (see "Ann Kitchen 1, Precourt Sports Ventures Nil," Feb. 2). Council appears split over the issue, and arguments similar to those over Long will likely reverberate over the next few weeks or months.
Meanwhile, also on Council's immediate agenda (Feb. 1) is what to do about PARD's Aquatic Master Plan, which in theory proposes $124 million or more in bond money to repair and maintain as many of the city's antiquated but heavily used swimming pools as can be repaired (perhaps even adding a few more for underserved neighborhoods). An infrastructure bond package is indeed in development for November – but the thought of an opening bid of $124 million just for pools has raised eyebrows (and voices) on the dais. The guess here is council members will "accept" the report without committing to any particular funding – and another major PARD project (and city need) will languish for months or years, for lack of funds.
Investments in Community
As it happens, I was thinking of this history and the current debates Sunday afternoon, when I spent several hours visiting the new Central Library (which cost just about as much as the asking money for the pools). It was a glorious early spring day, and thousands of my neighbors (and their children) were enjoying every available nook and cranny of the library (from study rooms to tech "petting zoo" to roof garden) and lining up to check out hundreds of books (or doing it themselves via computerized stations). Library project opponents had described it as a pointless waste of money; one (since defeated) council member had brandished his smartphone and declared it had rendered such publicly funded extravagances obsolete.
I don't know what will happen to Long Park, or the professional soccer proposal, or – most importantly – to the undoubtedly ambitious Aquatic Master Plan, which is in substance an attempt to build broad public consensus for community expenditures on benefits we all eventually share directly or indirectly. Like many Austinites, I'm skeptical of public-private "partnerships" that chip away at democratic sovereignty, and I don't like it that as a nation we increasingly find ourselves relying on private capital to underwrite public projects we should be paying for ourselves. I'm glad and proud that building our new Central Library – a tribute paid to Austin's future – came out of our own pockets.
On the other hand, in instances where private-public partnerships have become our only realistic options, we should consider them seriously, while creating safeguards that protect the public interest and public oversight. What we cannot do is let the naysayer mantra, "We just can't afford it," become the default response to every community need. What we build together, we are.