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Hensley wants Waller boathouse to be a “destination.”

Tuesday, May 5, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

Sara Hensley, the new director of the Parks and Recreation Department, has asked for everything short of a “do over” on the new proposed boathouse on the shore of Lady Bird Lake in the ongoing Waller Creek tunnel project.

Project manager Gary Jackson updated the Waller Creek Citizen Advisory Committee last Thursday night. After a brief description of the history of the boathouse, Hensley suggested using the site for a more ambitious proposal. The new parks director – who has been on the job for only five months – would like to put her own imprint on the project.

The current plan is for the boathouse to be replaced by a new building, one that would accommodate both the Austin Rowing Club and the Parks and Recreation Department on the second floor in a more elaborate two-story structure. Hensley sees the site as a possible destination point on the lakefront, one that could serve a far broader audience than simply the rowing club. She’d like to see potential enhancements to the facility – possibly through a public-private partnership – that would recognize the potential to serve a broader audience, one that could include fishing and sailing, as well as rowing and boating and even lakefront visitors.

This facility, under the right proposal, could be a state-of-the-art building that could attract all types of traffic. Hensley said she had no desire to delay the overall Waller Creek project but saw the boathouse site as a potential location on the lake that should not be squandered by such a narrow use. The site could be used as a gathering area, as well as a place that could include retail and concessions, she said.

Hensley said she had given her word that any proposal she made would not undermine the overall timeline of the Waller Creek project. But she did see a potential – possibly through a city request for services – that could provide a more updated state-of-the-art facility with a potential private partner.

This would be a chance to both create a better partnership and to look at the highest and best use for lakefront property, Hensley said. As the city struggles for dollars, it’s important to assess every opportunity for partnerships to create what is needed in the community. The new director added that she knew she was “late for the dance,” but that she was committed to doing what was in the best interest of the community when it came to the potential Parks Department facility.

“We see this as an opportunity, wherever it needs to go,” Hensley said. “We want to do what’s best for us as a city, just with a different twist.”

The Parks Department does not have additional funds to put forward on the facility, which is slated to cost $1.3 million, but it does have a desire to partner more on parks facilities, Hensley said.

Members of the committee were fairly receptive to Hensley’s idea, suggesting that additional uses for the building might be added with additions, rather than a complete “do over” of the new boathouse design. Committee member Jeb Boyt noted that the boathouse would sit in a prominent location that would draw a lot of interest in the area.

Joe Pantalion, assistant director of the Watershed Department and Development Review Department, noted that the initial scope on the boathouse was to replace the facility, but Hensley’s plan proposed to optimize the location for best and highest use. What it would mean on the Waller Creek project would simply be a pause in design on the boathouse while other things go on in order for PARD to make a decision how to best implement its proposed plan and to secure additional funding.

“A lot of it depends on the final uses, whether or not the existing floor plan could be modified or needed to be enlarged,” Pantalion said. “There is a spectrum of minor modifications that could made to the existing design, rather than erasing the board and starting over again. We could be talking 6 months or 12 months.”

Hensley proposed a charette process, over the next three months, to consider an expanded range of uses on the boathouse site. It would not be a year.

“We’re just looking for a willingness to really make sure we get the biggest bang out of this,” Hensley said. “We want the most creative venue and the most appropriate way to go.”

Dave Anderson said funding would likely drive the complexity of PARD’s final plan for the boathouse. “Otherwise, it’s a guessing game,” Anderson said.

Boyt, a former member of the Parks and Recreation Board, said the time frame still made it feasible to redesign and repurpose the building. Changes to the current footprint would not need to be radical to accommodate a new purpose. New, or expanded, uses would be possible under the projects current constraints.

The new boathouse design, already 60 percent complete, has been presented to the Parks Department, the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department and the Austin Rowing Club, Jackson said. Various changes – shifting the restroom, adding a park ranger office, adjusting a stairway, adding an ADA ramp – have been accommodated over the course of discussion, Jackson said. An observation deck also would be added on the side of the building that faces the lake.

Where the current boathouse stands now would be a large outlet into the lake, an aspect of the project that would not be completed for about three years. The current boathouse would be torn down by 2011. The outlet would be completed in 2014.

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