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Watson, Naishtat pen bills to keep downtown squares under city control

Monday, March 18, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Austin Democrats Sen. Kirk Watson and Rep. Eliot Naishtat have filed bills that would re-up the City of Austin’s 99-year leases on three key downtown squares. If approved, the measure would stave off the theoretical 2016 end of city control over Republic Park, Wooldridge Park, and Brushy Park.

 

Rep. Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth) is co-sponsoring Naishtat’s bill.

 

Locally, Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole has put an item on this week’s agenda with the support of Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Council Member Chris Riley to show the legislators solid city support for their efforts.

 

Watson framed the issue in terms that appear designed to encourage support from his colleagues at the legislature. “Being the Capital City means we have a responsibility to help support and maintain our state’s history,” he told In Fact Daily via email. “These public squares are part of that history, and it’s a service to the city and the state that they’re parks. In recent years, the city has invested in these parks and has set aside additional funding for further improvements. This partnership works, and it’s well worth extending it for another 99 years.”

 

The parks represent three of four squares laid out in the original 1839 Waller plan for the City of Austin. According to Watson, a lease for Republic Square Park was formalized by the state legislature in 1917. Though there are no such documents for Brushy and Wooldridge, the city has maintained them for roughly 175 years.

 

“These weren’t part of the original land grant,” Watson wrote. “Austin is maintaining those two parks anyway, and they have become vital to our downtown. Furthermore, if Austin weren’t maintaining the parks, it isn’t clear who else would.”  

 

An expiration of the leases would bring control of the parks back to state hands. Though each of the parks represents prime downtown Austin real estate, it appears that Wooldridge would be under the most direct threat of development should Austin lose control of the facilities.

 

This is thanks to the fact that the maintenance of Republic is a key part of security plans for the new downtown federal courthouse; any threat of state development would simply force the U.S. government to condemn the park. On top of that fact, Republic is also a City of Austin historic landmark.

 

Brushy now hosts a historic fire station – one that serves the capitol complex, and therefore the emergency needs of the legislature.

 

That’s not to say that Wooldridge boasts no history. Formally turned into a park by then-Mayor A.P. Wooldridge in 1909, the place serves as a traditional campaign launching spot, including for that of future president Lyndon Baines Johnson when he kicked off his 1948 run for the U.S. Senate.

 

Austin has been a good steward of the downtown parks since the very founding by the first Mayor of Austin, Edwin Waller,” Cole told In Fact Daily via email. “We appreciate the work of Senator Watson, Rep. Naishtat and Rep. Geren to clarify and renew the agreement between the City and State which will ensure that both public and private investment in these assets will continue.”

 

It is not immediately clear whether the state General Land Office or the Texas Facilities Commission would control the parks if they revert back to Texas. In that event, either could potentially seek to develop the squares.

 

However, in addition to the historic landmark and federal obstacle, recent events have brought the state’s newly allowed practice of establishing public-private partnerships to develop open parcels of state-controlled land under close, negative legislative scrutiny (See In Fact Daily, Whispers, Feb. 28).

 

Downtown Austin Alliance Associate Director Molly Alexander tells In Fact Daily that the Watson measure is an administrative action. “It’s trying to make sure that everybody’s i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed,” she said.

 

Still, Alexander notes the importance of keeping the parks under City of Austin control. “It’s critical for the next generation of downtown,” she says.

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