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Council moves ahead on plans to overhaul Auditorium Shores

Friday, December 13, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

Despite talk of postponing their decision in the face of public scrutiny, City Council members moved forward with plans to rehabilitate Auditorium Shores Thursday night.


“Delays into January, when work is supposed to start this month, it triggers a domino event for all of those events where we have specifically timed them in the construction phase,” said Council Member Mike Martinez. “Quite frankly, (it) could jeopardize the entire project all together.”


As has been well-publicized, the renovation will shrink the off-leash dog park area. The $3.5 million project will also provide needed maintenance on turf and irrigation systems in the park. Though the parks department will pay for the project upfront, C3 Presents – which produces the Austin City Limits Music Festivalwill reimburse the city over the next five years.


In the end, the decision was unanimous. Council made a few amendments, including a provision that would allow on-leash dogs on the main lawn of the park, which would enable dogs to get to the off-leash park from the parking lot. Another amendment will allow dogs on leashes to be in the middle lawn section of the park.


Parks and Recreation Director Sara Hensley told Council that she didn’t think that there would be a problem with the events scheduled to take place in the future, though she didn’t commit to a timeline for relocating the festival.


“It’s a big unknown, I admit. It’s up in the air. I think we’re close, and I think we can get there,” said Hensley. “We all know we have to get it done, and that’s the end of the story.”


While construction is underway, events normally held at Auditorium Shores are still working out details of relocation. Feeling the most pressure are Urban Fest, which is held in the spring, and Fun Fun Fun Fest, which is held in the fall. Though Fun Fun Fun Fest may be relocated to the nearby Palmer Events Center, those plans still remain up in the air.


Bobby Garza, who is the General Manager at Transmission Events, saw things differently, and told Council that problems for Fun Fun Fun Fest were likely. He said that under normal circumstances, the group would have started planning and selling for next year’s festival a month ago. He said it may take staff six weeks to work out the details he needs for the events.


“Our need for predictability from year to year is pretty strong and for this process to take much longer puts our festival in jeopardy,” said Garza “I think six weeks puts our festival in jeopardy, for sure. Our preference would have been to have agreements with all of the stakeholders before the final design got voted, because then we are kind of lost in the shuffle. That’s my fear.”


Though many people asked Council to postpone their decision to allow for better distribution of plans and more public input, several organizations spoke in support of the plan.


Representatives from South by Southwest, the Downtown Austin Alliance, the Austin Parks Foundation and the Austin Trails Foundation all threw their support behind the plan.


Council Member Kathie Tovo made a small, ideological change to the plans, asking that the main lawn of the park be re-labeled on plans. Currently the lawn is called the “Event Lawn,” and Tovo asked that be changed to “East Lawn.”


“We’ve heard from lots of constituents who are very concerned that we continue to regard our public parks, especially this park, as a park and not as an events venue,” said Tovo, who pointed to language in plans referring to the park as a “major outdoor venue.”


“I think it is extremely important to continue to regard our parkland for its primary purpose, which is to serve the residents of Austin who want to go there,” said Tovo.


To that end, City Council stressed the fact that the number of events slated for Auditorium Shores will not change, and that number will remain static at 25.


As drawn, plans now will allow for dogs on about 10 acres, with just under 5 acres of off-leash dog park. The off-leash area can be down-scaled for larger events, with a movable fence making that area as small as 3.2 acres on occasion.


Michelle Hazan was one of several people who spoke out against the overall process.


“The fight over Auditorium Shores is not just about dogs. It’s about the public process being bypassed and about a private company – C3 – donating money and then dictating policy on how public land is used,” said Hazan.


Some Council Members disagreed with that assessment.


“In some respects, C3 has been pointed to as an organization that is buying the city. I just couldn’t disagree with that notion more,” said Martinez. “We, as a community, have agreed that we need to improve Auditorium Shores. I understand that folks have different feelings about different groups, but I feel compelled to say that this is not a C3 issue. This is a parks and city issue,” said Martinez.


Mayor Lee Leffingwell built off that sentiment, saying, “(We are) finally realizing that we cannot pay for a decent parks system alone, by ourselves. We have to seek out public-private partnerships to do a good job.”

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