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Council to weigh move to limit events in major urban parks

Wednesday, June 7, 2017 by Chad Swiatecki

Special events in the city’s three core parks will eventually be scaled back in coming years if City Council approves Thursday the first slate of measures aimed at preserving local parkland.

The ordinance up for consideration would alter current rules for hours of park use, parking policies and sound limits. But the component with the biggest potential to change usage would limit the number of event days at Zilker Park, Edward Rendon Sr. Park at Festival Beach – better known as Fiesta Gardens – and Vic Mathias Shores at Town Lake Metropolitan Park, or “Auditorium Shores.” The limits are intended to lessen the wear and tear caused by events such as the Austin City Limits Festival that draw tens of thousands of attendees each year.

The proposed limits were formulated from the Parkland Events Task Force, a community stakeholder group that spent several months last year examining current parks usage and how to plan for their future as Austin continues to grow.

If adopted, Zilker would lose five event days through attrition to a total of 24, Auditorium Shores would scale back to 17 days from its current 20 and Fiesta Gardens would go down to 17 from its current 19 event days per year. No existing events would be eliminated as part of the policy, but those that leave or cease operations would not be replaced until a given park was under its new threshold.

The task force’s report included language that aimed to steer new events to underutilized parks in East Austin including Walter E. Long Metropolitan Park and Onion Creek Memorial Park, though those parks will need new master plans and renovations that could cost millions of dollars – potentially funded through an eventual bond vote – before they can host large-scale events comfortably.

At Tuesday’s Council work session Council Member Ora Houston, whose district includes eastern parks properties, described Long Park as “vastly underutilized” and said its combination of water features, green space and hundreds of nearby parking spaces would make it an ideal location for large community events.

Council Member Greg Casar told Parks and Recreation Department staff he will be paying attention to how event days are allocated to ticketed events versus those that are free and open to the public, with staff members responding that a matrix weighing several factors including admission fees will be used to evaluate future events.

Asked by multiple Council members why only some of the task force’s recommendations are coming to Council for a vote, the department’s Assistant Director Kimberly McNeeley said it would take up to three years to complete the entire menu of recommendations because other departments such as transportation have jurisdiction over matters.

One of those issues is parking restrictions on side streets and neighborhoods near parks, which have been a major point of contention for residents who find themselves nearly parked into their homes during festivals and popular events such as Trail of Lights.

Council Member Ellen Troxclair said she understands the concerns of residents near Zilker and other popular parks, but that the city shouldn’t cede use of public streets over to just residents who feel inconvenienced.

“I hope we keep in mind that we need to keep a balance with these city streets that everyone pays for and should have the benefit of using,” she said. “Within reason, we need to allow people to park there and can’t allow certain neighborhoods to take complete ownership of the streets within those neighborhoods.”

This story has been corrected to reflect that Fiesta Gardens will actually lose two event days under the proposal.

Photo by Robert Young made available through a Creative Commons license.

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