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Houston sees disparity in treatment of parks

Wednesday, May 20, 2015 by Jo Clifton

Unless the item gets bogged down by a requirement that a master plan for Lamar Beach be completed first, City Council is likely to approve on Thursday a 50-year agreement with the West Austin Youth Association for renovations to three baseball fields and an additional youth sports field.

The same cannot be said for a proposed agreement to allow a private developer to create golf courses in far East Austin.

WAYA has provided youth sports opportunities for Austinites for the past 30 years, according to Parks and Recreation Department Director Sara Hensley, who urged Council at Tuesday’s work session to move forward with the agreement. The previous Council directed Hensley and her staff to enter into negotiations with WAYA last August.

That Council asked staff to extend the agreement with the youth association for 50 years with a 25-year extension option. If that agreement is approved by this Council, WAYA will have 10 years to construct improvements after the master planning process and the extension of Pressler Road are completed.

Mayor Steve Adler wondered whether it would be better to wait to enter into the agreement until the master plan for the park is finalized.

Hensley argued that WAYA will be embarking on a fundraising campaign to raise the $5 million to $10 million the group will need for renovations. She said WAYA would be one of the participants in drawing up the master plan for the park, so there should be no conflict between the master plan and the improvements the group intends to make.

According to Hensley, business contributors may not want to give $1 million or $2 million when there is no long-term written commitment from the city to the organization, making it difficult for WAYA to raise money. She said it would take six to nine months to finish the master plan and that WAYA would like to begin construction as soon as it is completed.

Council Member Leslie Pool, chair of the Open Space, Environment and Sustainability Committee, said the need for certainty in the fundraising campaign was a major reason for the committee’s support of executing the contract now.

The next item on Tuesday’s agenda was discussion of a 50-year license agreement with Decker Lake Golf LLC for the design, construction and management of a PGA-style golf course at Walter E. Long Metropolitan Park, located in far East Austin, just west of State Highway 130.

Council Member Ora Houston, a staunch proponent of the golf course agreement, said she would like to have a discussion about city policy as it relates to the length of time the city will grant for a concession on parkland.

Referring to the previous discussion about WAYA, Houston said, “There seem to be some inequities (in decision-making). Where some are able to have a 73-year lease and give no money back to the city at all, we seem to be having a hold-up on a concession lease where money is coming back to the city. … So I think there is a broader policy conversation about how we make sure that there is an equitable policy in place.”

Adler then indicated that he was not ready to vote on the Decker proposal. He said that he thought the city should have a coordinated plan for economic development in East Austin prior to considering the proposal. “I’m not sure I would be able to handle this in the absence of addressing those larger issues,” he said.

Adler added that he would favor postponing Thursday’s vote until there were more conversations on economic development issues, but acknowledged that he did not know exactly how those conversations should proceed.

Council Member Don Zimmerman wanted to know how to get the issue before voters. Houston assured him that any vote on selling or leasing the property would result in a no from the electorate, just as it had the last time the proposal came up.

Houston said that such a vote would leave people in that part of East Austin “without a trigger” for bringing about more economic development. “This is not the complete economic development packet, but it is the trigger,” she said. “We’ll have the City of Austin, who usually doesn’t care about what happens in that part of the city, making a decision on what does happen to the people who do live out in that part of the city, who have been without those kinds of services for 40 years.”

Council Member Ellen Troxclair, chair of the Economic Opportunity Committee, championed a proposal of ways to bring in extra money from the golf course to help fund more economic development in East Austin.

Troxclair seemed perplexed by Adler’s comments. She pointed out that her committee had several hearings and that the matter had been going on for quite a long time. When the issue first came up, she said, this Council had a conversation on the dais about how long the matter had been pending.

Either way, Troxclair said, “The community deserves some kind of resolution, so that’s why we set it for a time certain, but now it’s going to be postponed. So I’m just trying to understand.”

Adler said he would post something on the Council Message Board to explain his stance.

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