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Could pocket parks be the new norm?

Friday, May 26, 2017 by Sommer Brugal

Grappling with a number of park-deficient areas around the city, various Austin neighborhoods are struggling to find places that could serve as parkland nearby residents can enjoy.

This week, members of the Parks and Recreation Board agreed on a possible solution: pocket parks, an open space of land measuring one-acre or less.

Board Member Rick Cofer presented a resolution to the board Tuesday night to address the formation and public usage of pocket parks. Cofer said the recommendation presented encourages the Parks and Recreation Department to develop policies and guidelines that support neighborhood uses of such parks, and, secondly, to establish building and permitting standards for the parks to ensure an efficient and cost-effective process.

“We’ve had some pocket parks developed recently that have been real showstoppers, (but) we’re struggling a bit with finding appropriate purposes and policies for (them),” he explained.

David King, who was speaking as a private citizen, though he is a member of the Zoning and Platting Commission, said he appreciated the resolution. King noted the challenges cities face in trying to build and maintain large, metropolitan parks. Focusing on pocket parks, he said, would be a good strategy to fill in the gaps around the city.

“I think it’s really good to put a spotlight on this,” King said, “particularly given that, especially in the urban core, there’s a finite amount of land, we’re really densifying and we’re (going to) be struggling to find places that we can have even small amounts of parkland folks can go to and enjoy.”

Austin Neighborhoods Council President Mary Ingle also supported the resolution, but expressed concern with the city’s building standards and regulations for pocket parks, including their parking requirements.

She sited Sparky Park as an example of the former concern.

“Sparky Park had an existing substation building (that was) about 800 square feet,” Ingle began, “and when we went to get it permitted, it added about two years to the permitting process because we were supposed to put in eight bathrooms. That took up the entire building and that was ridiculous.”

Ricardo Soliz, Parks and Recreation Department division manager, said those bathroom requirements aren’t typical for pocket parks. Soliz said Sparky Park was unique in that there was already a structure on the site. Generally speaking, he said, restrooms and parking are not included in pocket park requirements.

Board Member Michael Casias also had positive things to say about the resolution. In anticipation of CodeNEXT, and the high levels of redevelopment the city is experiencing, Casias said it would be great to see old sites, like warehouse sites, and pocket parks included in those master plans.

“I’m wondering if we could add that the Parks and Recreation Board, as an additional ‘further resolved,’ would incentivize new developments to include pocket parks in their plan,” said Casias. Doing so, he said, would motivate new projects to include pocket parks in their designs.

Cofer agreed that new developments need to have “more than adequate parks made available,” but didn’t think this specific resolution was the right vehicle to do so.

“I just want to focus more narrowly on our existing pocket parks, how we’re using them, (and) focusing towards neighborhood usages,” Cofer said. “In terms of development, we want to make it easier to build pocket parks, and I think we’re on the same page on that.”

To compromise, Casias recommended adding language that suggested the development of policies and guidelines that support neighborhood uses for “and development of new” pocket parks.

“I think that’s fine,” Cofer agreed.

Board members approved the resolution unanimously, with Chair Jane Rivera absent.

Photo of Swede Hill Pocket Park via Google Maps.

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