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Planning Commission rejects variances to Barton Springs plan

Thursday, February 28, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

Much to the delight of those gathered to denounce the plans, the Planning Commission withheld its endorsement of proposed variances to the Barton Springs Pool plan on Tuesday night.


“For me, it makes much more sense to actually move to deny the recommendation,” said Commissioner James Nortey. “That might actually create an impetus to analyze and look at these issues further.”


Nortey said that the denial would allow staff time to look at the issues with the current plan that were detailed earlier in the meeting. Specifically, he asked staff to look into removing impervious cover, creating a porous path across the south lawn to an overlook, and moving the south parking lot as far away from the springs as possible. Commissioner Jean Stevens later amended the motion to include a request that staff look into the feasibility of off-site parking for the pool.


“We go through so many issues where it’s a denial or recommendation, and it’s like we’re trying to recommend it, maybe, if we can do some other things. This just says, go ahead and deny… The onus is now back on staff to present another item,” said Nortey. “I don’t know that there’s an incentive to look at the issues we’ve addressed if we just go ahead and approve it.”


The city has been working for years on the proposed plan, which will make many cosmetic changes to the area around Barton Springs Pool including burying power lines, building an ADA-compliant path on the south side of the pool, replacing the south fence, installing irrigation for the trees, and updating the landscaping on the north side. After years of combing over the details, and countless meetings about the changes, the Planning Commission was to be the last stop before the proposal headed to City Council at the end of March.


The majority of the commission agreed with the strategy, and voted 5-2 to deny staff’s recommendation to amend the Save Our Springs Ordinance, and grant variances that would allow pool renovations to move forward. Chair Dave Anderson voted against the motion, as did Commissioner Myron Smith. Commissioner Brian Roark was absent.


“I will say, from my perspective, we run the risk of derailing conversations that we’ve had for four or five years,” said Anderson. “I think we are literally 90 percent of the way there, so that’s not something I can support. I think it’s too risky.”


Public input has been plentiful about the proposed changes to both the south and north sides of Barton Springs Pool. Though it has, at times, grown quite contentious, the discussion at the Planning Commission was civil, with opponents to its current incarnation settled on two main themes.


The first sticking point is a path that would cut across the south slope and allow those with disabilities to access that view for the first time from an overlook. David Witte, who is with ADAPT of Texas told the commission that they were unwilling to forsake access to the overlook entirely.


However, he clarified that “any means of access” would be acceptable, and that if that access could be achieved in ways other than through a crushed granite path, that would be fine.


The other main conflict that remains about the plan is a proposed increase in parking – from 80 to 124 spaces in the south lot – and the associated increase in impervious cover. Last week, the Environmental Board recommended that impervious cover remain the same.


Blayne Stansberry, the civil engineer on the project, told the Planning Commission that this could be accomplished. Even with an increase to the south parking lot, impervious cover could be removed from other areas of the pool.


Executive Director of the Save Our Springs Alliance Bill Bunch told the commission that they wanted to see a decrease in impervious cover, as well as increased parking for bicycles.


“We need to push them to reduce impervious cover, and not just by a few feet, but substantially,” said Bunch, who also pushed for more bike parking in the plan.


Austin Sierra Club’s Roy Waley suggested that staff look into alternatives to the parking situation, such as off-site parking with a shuttle service, or reduced entrance fees for those who have paid to park elsewhere.


Commissioner Danette Chimenti noted that it was ironic that, at a time when the city is looking to decrease parking, the city would increase parking at Barton Springs.


“We’re not going to solve the parking problem by increasing parking. We can’t increase it enough,” said Chimenti, who advocated for encouraging bicycle use and off-site parking instead. As part of their motion, the commission asked that staff look into increasing shuttle parking, bicycle parking and other multimodal forms of parking, aside from just vehicular parking.


“We’re not saying we are trying to kill this,” said Nortey. “We’re not completely satisfied with what the current proposal is. Council may still adopt it, but we send that message to Council (about) why we want staff to look at other issues.”

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