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Thursday, May 24, 2018 by Jessi Devenyns
Zilker Park staging area in line to become a parking lot
For years, the back end of the swath of parkland used for the Austin City Limits Festival, the Trail of Lights and the Kite Festival has been repurposed as a sometimes staging area and sometimes parking lot. However, until now, it was never intended to become a full-fledged parking lot that could accommodate cars and staging materials year-round.
In an effort to alleviate the strain that summer park traffic puts on the Polo Fields – the space that is opened occasionally on Zilker parkland for parking on the south side of Barton Springs Road – the Parks and Recreation Department is well into the planning stages to convert the temporary staging area into a permanent 7-acre partially paved and partially graveled lot.
“We started the permitting process with the city of Austin back in November of 2017,” said Scott Smiley, division manager and vice president of the Atkins engineering firm tasked with fixing the lot, at the last meeting of the Parks and Recreation Board. Although the project is still going through the city permitting process, he explained that they plan to have all their Texas Commission on Environmental Quality permits in hand by June.
Construction is scheduled to start in late June.
The project was presented as the Stratford Drive Redevelopment project on the board agenda. Bill Bunch, the executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance, argued that presenting it in that fashion was misleading and illegal. “You have to give public notice about what you’re taking action on,” he told the Austin Monitor.
Bunch pointed to the Office of the Attorney General of Texas Open Meetings Handbook, which states “The notice must be sufficient to apprise the general public of the subjects to be considered during the meeting.”
In this case, he argued that the project has nothing to do with the street adjacent to the lot that is proposed to be graveled. “I think it’s absolutely no coincidence that the notice that is posted about this … says nothing about Zilker Park or nothing about a parking lot,” he said.
He agreed that Zilker Park does have parking challenges, but he explained that the city needs to develop a parking and access plan with public input. By calling it park maintenance, he said, “this has been flying under the radar. It’s a sneak attack on Zilker Park.”
According to Tony Arnold, the project manager, this is not a parking lot; it is also intended to serve other functions. The space will still be used periodically as a staging area, and Arnold said that Austinites can still run their dogs there when space is available. “This is being driven by the fact that we’ve run into problems with rutting (from runoff) and with dust,” he explained.
The Parks and Recreation Department is working with the Watershed Protection Department, the Trail Foundation, the Zilker Botanical Gardens and the Austin Parks Foundation on this project. The Austin Parks Foundation and C3 Presents, the concert promotion company that produces the Austin City Limits Festival, will be paying for construction.
Board Member Richard DePalma noted that he was torn on the issue. “I definitely have an issue regarding the outreach and engagement,” he said.
Mark Gentle, the president of the Barton Hills Neighborhood Association, explained that he was neutral about the project. He did note, however, that though one of the key initiatives for the Parks and Recreation Department Strategic Plan 2017-2021 is greater citizen communication and input, his neighborhood had never been informed of the project.
The site in question is an old landfill from the early 20th century. It was capped in the 1960s and since then, the city has continually maintained its clay top in an effort to make the area usable as park space. For decades it was covered in grass to help improve the water quality from runoff, but its more modern usage as festival grounds, even with continual maintenance, has contributed to the cracking of the clay membrane over the landfill.
By covering this 7-acre capped landfill, the Parks and Recreation Department hopes to address some environmental concerns that currently exist. These include water quality issues, erosion, dust and exposure to the decomposing landfill.
Just like the Polo Fields today, there will be no designated parking spaces on this lot. However, according to Kimberly McNeeley, the acting director of the parks department, the PARD parking team calculated that the area could hold around 700 vehicles. Parking will be metered seasonally.
McNeeley emphasized that this parking would replace the Polo Fields for overflow parking, and the Polo Fields would be returned to functioning permanently as parkland.
According to McNeeley, this project is being completed as a park improvement and does not need to go before City Council for approval. Nevertheless, Bunch pointed out that “Council Member (Ann) Kitchen is opposed to this.”
The board took no action and referred the project to the Environmental Commission. Chair Jane Rivera asked that staff return next month for further review of the project. In the meantime, she said, “We as individuals will advise our Council members.”
Phasing plan courtesy of the city of Austin.
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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.
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.