Thursday, March 24, 2016 by Vicky Garza

New study envisions major changes around Barton Springs Pool

Austin’s rapid population growth and development, along with Zilker Park’s aging facilities, are threatening Barton Springs, the pool and its bathhouse. In a presentation to the Parks and Recreation Board on Tuesday, city staff and members of the Barton Spring Conservancy laid out several recommendations to preserve and improve the area around Barton Springs Pool based on a feasibility study.

The study was conducted by the MWM DesignGroup for the Parks and Recreation Department and focuses on the facilities on the north side of Barton Springs Pool, from the Violet Crown trailhead to the Pecan Grove picnic area along Barton Springs Road.

The Parks and Recreation Department commissioned the study after the passage of the 2012 bond package, which allocated $2 million in funding for the renovation of the Barton Springs Bathhouse, $2.75 million for the relocation of the Zilker maintenance barn and $2.5 million for other site improvements.

“It became obvious early that as we think about the bathhouse renovations and the impact to how people connect with the building and the rest of the area, it would be good to look at things holistically,” Parks and Recreation Department Assistant Director Marty Stump told the Austin Monitor. The study, also known as a preliminary engineering report, took six months to complete.

David Kim Taylor, a project manager in the Public Works Department, presented the study’s three sets of recommendations to the board. The first set involves proceeding with planned projects, which include installation of parking meters, a project that is nearly complete; implementation of the Eliza Spring Daylighting project; installation of a restroom at the Violet Crown trailhead, currently under development; and relocation of the maintenance barn.

“The location of the barn today could cause some damage,” said Stump. In addition to its location in the floodplain, any runoff can drain directly into Barton Creek. The proposed location over the ridge to the northwest, past the Austin Sunshine Camp, would put the barn in a different watershed. In addition, said Stump, “it works nicely in terms of access for the maintenance staff.”

Also recommended was a site improvement package, which includes reconfiguring the parking lot, replacing the playscape, repairing and replacing amenities such as water fountains and picnic tables, and improving the trail that connects these elements to one another.

Board member Richard DePalma said that he would like to see an all-abilities playscape, and fellow member Alison Alter added that she’d like to see “natural elements incorporated in a really thoughtful, innovative way, where they are actually used for play and not secondary to the design.”

The third set of recommendations addresses the remodeling of the 69-year-old bathhouse, which includes restoration of the rotunda and dressing areas, replacement of the plumbing system, the addition of more entrances to meet fire codes and relocation of the Sheffield Education Center and aquatics area.

The recommendations are an evolution of the work originally done in the 2008 Barton Springs Pool Master Plan. “It tries to follow closely the goals that were stated in that master plan to restore the site to its rightful glory, to improve the water quality and, most important, to provide appropriate additions and renovations to this area,” said Taylor.

With only the bond funding, “we would address life safety issues and some of the most immediate plumbing and mechanical concerns, and some of the more aesthetic treatments would have to wait for a future phase,” said Stump. “We would love to get it into one phase, but that would take some funding assistance from the outside.”

That is where the Barton Springs Conservancy comes in. The conservancy and the city are forming a public-private partnership in which the conservancy will help envision long-term improvements and assist with funding, having committed to raising $3 million for the bathhouse project, said Barton Springs Conservancy President Michael Cannatti. “We hope to help with this project and others down the road,” he said.

The city will also look for grants and other funding sources to make the renovations during the design phase, said Stump.

The conservancy asked Robert Jackson, the architect behind the visitor center at Westcave Preserve, to create a few sketches of the site with some of the recommendations from the study, which were presented to the board. The most obvious difference was the addition of a new education and visitor center to the playground’s north side. The center would offer classroom and meeting space, a theater, educational exhibits and a storage area for volunteers.

Cannatti estimated the cost for the proposed education center to be between $3.5 million and $5.5 million, but he had some creative funding ideas to help pay for that, as well as for future maintenance.

“Some office space might be rented out to parks-related groups, the theater might also be rented out for events and (the city’s) Watershed Protection (Department) may be a potential source for part of the funding,” said Cannatti.

Stump told the Austin Monitor that he expects to enlist two design teams: one that specializes in buildings of a historic nature, to focus on the bathhouse, and another – most likely led by a landscape architect – to work on the children’s playscape and other sites. The budget will dictate which projects can actually be done, he said.

Stump anticipates having the requests for quotation out in about two months and getting the design teams on board in six. Overall, it will be a long process, which will include opportunity for public input and presentations to boards and committees, with City Council having the ultimate authority to award construction contracts.

Stump said the earliest point at which construction would begin is in two years and that the city would try to time it to minimize disruption, meaning it would most likely take place during the winter months.

More than 1.5 million people visited Barton Springs Pool in 2015, and that number is increasing each year.

“With Austin’s growth, we are at an important juncture in the history of Barton Springs,” said Ricky Martinez, advocacy chair for the Barton Springs Conservancy. “On the one hand, heavy use and increased pool attendance have altered and deteriorated the architectural function and historic integrity of the bathhouse; increasing development pressure upstream threatens water quality and decreases spring flows.

“On the other hand, there are opportunities now to enhance the visitor experience, to educate visitors about water quality and environmental protection, and to convey a sense of our community values embodied in this sacred space that is the soul of Austin,” Martinez said.

The Barton Springs Conservancy presentation and bathhouse feasibility study are embedded below.

[embeddoc url=”http://www.austinmonitor.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/PRB-Barton-Springs-Conservancy-Presentation.pdf” download=”all”]

[embeddoc url=”http://www.austinmonitor.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/PRB-Zilker-Bathhouse-Zone-Feasibility-Study.pdf” download=”all”]

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

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Barton Springs Pool: This man-made, spring-fed recreational pool is rightly considered the spiritual center of Austin. Despite its intimidatingly cool waters, it remains a popular year-round swimming spot for Austinites of all ages.

City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department: The city department responsible for the city's park system, rec centers, and associated infrastructure.

Parks and Recreation Board: The city’s Parks and Recreation Board members deal with the acquisition, development, improvement, and maintenance of Austin’s parks and playgrounds.

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