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Some want more commitment from city, private funds for Waterloo Park

Friday, August 14, 2009 by Austin Monitor

Waterloo Park dominated discussion at last night’s Waller Creek Citizens Advisory Committee meeting, and not always in the most positive of ways.

The Waller Creek Citizens Advisory Committee is at the intersection of several major city efforts. Waller Creek is a significant part of the downtown master plan effort, which is ongoing and includes the downtown parks and open space plan. And the Waller Creek tunnel project – above and below ground —  stands as one of the most significant efforts attempted by the city to jumpstart downtown development.

To this mix, add Sara Hensley, the new Parks Department director, who was not present last night but has put privatization and private money on the table more directly than her predecessors in Austin. So when Ted Siff, a member of the Waller Creek committee, mentioned a need for a capital campaign last night to redevelop Waterloo Park, it didn’t seem out of line or even out of scope. The park sits between Trinity and Red River Streets and 12th and 15th Streets.

Siff expressed disappointment with city plans for Waterloo Park, noting that the city was sitting on $2 million it was offered by the Waller Creek tunnel contractor to access the park at Waterloo Park. That $2 million, which parks department officials called more “credit” than actual money, is what could be used to redefine the park.

The picture of Waller Creek needs to be much larger, Siff said. Here is a department sitting on $2 million, thinking small when it should think large.

“I sincerely appreciate what you described today,” Siff said. “While it’s a vision, it’s a vision, to me, of five years, at best. It’s the five-year vision of a project during the tunnel inlet construction, rather than a vision of what’s best or what can be.”

What can be is a capital campaign, and while committee member George Cofer, executive director of the Hill Country Conservancy, refused to call for such a campaign given the current economy, it was obvious where the commission was headed.  A capital drive might be premature, but it was necessary for Waterloo Park, just as it was for the Long Center. Waterloo Park and Auditorium Shores have about the same number of public events each year.

A private capital campaign is a tantalizing thought for Waterloo Park. Here is a city park that served as a key venue for more than two-dozen events in Austin last year. It has a certain cachet and a certain identity; still, it earned no more than $71,000 in fees and revenue for 2008, according to Planner Ricardo Solis from the Parks Department. That total includes both the day rates to use the park, plus a cut of the revenue per ticket required under city ordinance.

Last night, Park and Recreation Department officials presented what they considered to be the answer to the citizen committee’s concerns about Waterloo last month, including long-range plans that addressed issues such as what would be the most practical layout of the park, which has seen significant wear and tear.

Parks officials talked about more logical entrances/exits, as well as the placement of restrooms and the addition of needed hardscape in areas used by vendors. That wasn’t enough for Siff, who said the city needed a longer range vision. That assessment was shared by a number of Siff’s colleagues.

It was a coalition of voices coming together to make the 10-acre Waterloo Park a destination downtown, one that Council Member Sheryl Cole’s office already has heard. Whether such an effort sticks still remains to be seen, although few locales in Austin have a higher profile than this one so close to the Capitol.

Committee members urged greater involvement of local groups that use the park. If, for instance, a local race was willing to underwrite the upgrades of the park, more power to them. Solis and Engineer Gary Jackson noted that meetings with vendors were scheduled to discuss park plans.

Urban Officer Jim Robertson also was at last night’s meeting to discuss the upcoming downtown parks and open space plan. Robertson provided an overview of major urban park projects, noting that a true effort to create a park as an urban destination could cost between $20 and $600 million.

The high end – the $600 million – is the price tag tied to Millennium Park in Chicago, which included a 1,000-space underground parking garage.

A parks master plan for downtown is expected to go to the citizens in early October.

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