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Parks Board wants density bonus used for downtown parks

Thursday, January 7, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

Chair Linda Guerrero had to admit – with some dismay – that the Design Commission had beaten the Parks and Recreation Board to the punch last month when it suggested to Council that downtown parks were a suitable use of density bonus fees.

Like its sister citizen committee, the Parks Board has also expressed support for the addition of off-site open space downtown as a community benefit under the proposed density bonus program, along with the ever-popular affordable housing component.

The addition of parks space downtown has been an on-again, off-again topic during the development of the downtown master plan. After some discussion, the Parks Board reaffirmed the importance of parks space and outlined priorities similar to the Design Commission’s goals.

That’s a new focus. Often, discussion has fallen to how much developers owed the city rather that what would constitute a good investment of those funds.

The Parks Board’s priorities, like the Design Commission’s, were enumerated in its letter regarding density bonuses: supporting public access within the Lady Bird Lake waterfront overlay and along Shoal Creek, recognizing the role the open space could play within the downtown plan’s various downtown districts, and recognizing the importance of preserving and upgrading the city’s original downtown squares.

“The Parks Board recognizes the relationship between added density and the need for more parks, so adding off-site parks is important to us,” Guerrero said.

Some members of the Parks Board wanted to set a minimum amount for density bonus fees going to parkland dedication fees. Others wanted to determine a radius of use – and proposed spending of those fees – once a project downtown had been assessed fees. Neither proposal had enough support to win approval with specifics.

Instead, the best that could be negotiated was a statement that the Parks Board wanted to be included in any and all discussion of potential fees and use of those fees. That would put the Parks Board, in some nebulous way, in the fee loop.

As was mentioned, the use of park space – and particularly use for all ages – is currently a topic of a city children and families task force that includes a representative of the Parks Board.

The Parks Board also took up the issue of the parks and open space plan, which the board generally supported. Planner Ricardo Solis described the report recently presented by downtown master plan developer ROMA and its team as “rich in ideas … and ideas about future management of these parks and signature parks.”

Parks department staff was supportive of the plan, which included a rich variety of approaches for downtown, from greenways and neighborhood parks to squares and cultural facilities, with a strong emphasis on connectivity, Solis said.

Vice Chair Sara Marler, who chaired the subcommittee that heard the presentation, noted general support for the plan, keeping in mind the need for a focus on youth and family activities in park facilities. A second issue raised by the committee was a concept of downtown as a whole within the overall city parks system, where downtown would not stop at the north banks of Lady Bird Lake, Marler said.

Director Sara Hensley’s concerns, which were embedded into the Parks Board’s eventual vote, was to make sure that co-existing plans – Shoal Creek, Waterloo Park, downtown, and elsewhere – all be integrated into the larger picture.

“We have to look at things holistically and really look at things comprehensively, or we’re going to end up looking at all these separate plans for the downtown area,” Hensley said, adding that the standards for individual pieces were being set high within the plan. “We need to make sure we coordinate and not miss out on an opportunity for connectivity and creativity.”

That coordination is coming, to some extent, out of internal staff meetings. But Hensley stressed the need for coordination, both between overall and short-term goals, as well as coordination between departments. Issues such as connectivity and transportation, for instance, play into the larger picture.

For now, Solis appears to be the point person linking the Parks Board to the downtown plan. Solis has attended meetings on the Waller Creek plan and Green Treatment Plan Decommissioning, as well as the Waller Creek Library and Shoal Creek master plan. “He’s our brain trust,” Hensley said.

The corollary to Hensley’s concerns – which is shared by some members of the Parks Board – is that some areas traditionally solely under the control of parks department now have been sent off to other departments. Parks department staff admitted that their staff might not know some functions that apply to parks – planning in particular.

An initial motion of support failed to win unanimous approval until Commissioner Jane Rivera’s concerns – really more of an acknowledgment of Hensley’s concerns about a holistic coordination – were incorporated into the plan. That won unanimous support among the Parks Board members.

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