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Monday, February 12, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

Board, public debate may slow approval of MACC master plan

City and community leaders hope to move forward with a spring approval of a new master plan for the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center despite a frequently contentious meeting of the center’s advisory board last week marked by debate over the public input process used to develop the plan.

Wednesday’s meeting saw members of the public and the board call into question how much weight the architect and the Parks and Recreation Department staff in charge of guiding the master plan process gave to the thoughts of frequent MACC visitors in the course of nearly a dozen public input sessions. The main sticking point is that the plan calls for a 500-capacity theater to be added to the site in its third phase, with some board members and public commenters calling for an additional 900-capacity theater, and a small performance space that would be attached to a cafe planned for the center’s expected expansion.

The debate caused some board members to ask the parks department to hold another public input session that would be incorporated into a revision of the draft master plan created by CasaBella Architects as part of the $400,000 allocated for the master plan process.

Kim McKnight, the project manager and cultural resource specialist managing the master plan process for the parks department, said further revisions to the plan would throw off the timetable for getting the master plan adopted by City Council by May, which would be an important step in possibly including the phase two slate of improvements in a bond election for various public works projects that is expected to go to voters in November.

The plan would need to be evaluated by up to a half-dozen boards and commissions in the coming months before an expected approval vote by the MACC Advisory Board in April, at which point it would go to Council for adoption. At that point, the plan could be considered by the city manager and the citizen-led Bond Election Advisory Task Force for possible inclusion in the bond vote.

McKnight said she’s hopeful that a report due this week that details the entire public engagement process that began last spring will show the advisory board and concerned citizens that the viewpoints of participants were considered before the architects began creating the draft plan.

“We’ve gone through a very robust process, and it’s not uncommon toward the end for boards and commissions to make new recommendations,” she said. “We’re going to review (the report) as a group and explain why we’re recommending what we’re recommending. We’re going to look at all of the suggestions, but we’re not leaning toward making any major changes.”

Improvements to the MACC are split into two phases – referred to as phase two and three – with the second phase likely to be funded using money from the bond vote and completed in the next five years. The fate of the third phase is more in question, with public-private partnerships and possible use of the city’s Hotel Occupancy Tax as funding sources under consideration.

Discussion of possible public-private funding brought about concerns over equity and cultural appropriation from residents and board members on Wednesday, with McKnight saying any such agreements would have to come after lengthy public input from MACC stakeholders.

The board also called for architects from CasaBella to make another presentation to explain their thinking in creating the draft plan currently being debated, with some board members expressing frustration that the firm hadn’t been more present at board meetings to this point.

Parks staff said the firm was careful to try to work in as many of the features from the public input process into the draft plan as possible while also working within the small footprint of the center’s location in the fast-developing Rainey Street district.

“There are still the constraints of the site and there are always budget considerations,” said Cara Welch, acting marketing and communications manager for the Parks and Recreation Department. “We’re trying to look at where the gap is, and that could possibly include seeking clarification from the board on if there’s something very different that we need to take back to the consultant team.”

Photo by Billy Hathorn assumed (based on copyright claims). [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

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

Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center: An Austin center with exhibits and events that explore Mexican-American heritage and culture.

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