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Council reopens debate on downtown park events

Wednesday, February 18, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

In the wake of public outcry related to a national cyclocross event at Zilker Park earlier this year, City Council has rekindled a long-running debate about the use of urban parks for special events.

“I think it is incumbent on us to make sure that we’re not impacting the same places of work, the same places of worship, the same neighborhoods, the same parks, over and over again,” Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo said at a policy workshop Tuesday.

Council members seemed surprised to learn that the Parks and Recreation Department, the Austin Parks Foundation and an advisory group called Tur Partners have completed an official report on impacts from events at Auditorium Shores and Zilker Park, with recommendations for potential mitigation solutions.

Council initiated this study in August 2012 and requested the foundation’s participation that October. The stakeholder process has included several public input meetings.

“It’s done,” Austin Parks Foundation Executive Director Colin Wallis told Council. “Given that most of you are trying to absorb a lot of information, we’re trying to be thoughtful about when that report comes to City Council.”

Council Member Ann Kitchen told Wallis that she appreciates the consideration, but “now is a good time” for Council to see the report. “This is a very very critical issue, it’s a hot button issue, it’s one of the first things that we need to talk about,” she said.

Wallis assured Council members that they will have the report “very shortly.”

Before Tuesday’s meeting, Tovo wrote on the City Council message board that she intended to propose a resolution for next Thursday’s Council meeting and “reinvigorate this process of assessing the impact of events on our public parks.”

Tovo told the Austin Monitor after the meeting that she looks forward to seeing the report, but it may not change her plans. “My assumption is that there will still be some usefulness to pulling together some stakeholders to consider this issue, to review the report and any recommendations it’s made, and determine some next steps for the Council to consider,” she said.

Tovo added that the goal of the process would be to help formulate “policies that really craft a better balance between the commercial use of our parks and the impact, both on those spaces and on the adjacent neighborhoods.”

Wallis said he believes the discussion related mainly to Zilker Park, Auditorium Shores, Edward Rendon Sr. Park at Festival Beach and other downtown parks. “I don’t think there is a huge issue with overusing parks for events in any of our other parks,” he said.

Wallis suggested that Council consider setting limits on the number of events the city allows at these parks per year, much like a previous Council did for Auditorium Shores in 1998. He also said the city should consider events on a case-by-case basis rather than following a precedent, schedule a more diverse array of events, charge the market rate for private events and give more authority to Parks and Recreation and its Council-appointed citizen board.

Melissa Hawthorne, former president of the Barton Hills Neighborhood Association, provided her perspective as a neighbor of Zilker Park who regularly deals with the impacts of events such as the two-weekend-long Austin City Limits.

“The fact of the matter is that the prison fence goes up around Zilker Park almost 100 to 130 days of the year for every event that we host now,” Hawthorne said. “The message is that it’s not yours.”

Council Member Ora Houston commented on the idea of diversifying park usage. “Walter E. Long Park would love to have the cyclists come. I’m not sure that we have any heritage trees, and so I wondered why you all didn’t think about that,” she said, addressing Parks and Recreation Director Sara Hensley.

Houston was referring to widespread concerns about the damage to older, protected trees of certain varieties in Zilker Park that occurred during the 2015 USA Cycling Cyclo-cross National Championships in early January.

“If we can get people to Formula One (at the Circuit of the Americas) … we can get them to Walter E. Long if we plan,” Houston said. “We’ve got a park out there that is looking for those kinds of things, and the cyclists would have been a wonderful opportunity.”

Houston said earlier in the discussion that the East Austin park suffers from “benign neglect.”

Parks and Recreation Assistant Director Cora Wright said that Walter E. Long Park was one of the venues the city recommended to the event organizer. She added that many of the events that the city permits are several years old and often tied to a certain environment.

The city, Wright said, must take these factors into account. “We have opportunities to decentralize events from the central city, but to a great extent the event organizer foresees the event venue that is most compatible with the type of event and size that they want to do,” she said.

To this, Houston responded, “Then we say, ‘I’m sorry, we can’t host you this year.'”

Council members will likely dive deeper into such issues in their Open Space, Environment and Sustainability Committee.

Photo by LoneStarMike (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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