Wednesday, January 23, 2019 by Jack Craver

A new vision for Brush Square Park

City officials believe that Brush Square Park, home of the O. Henry Museum, the Susanna Dickinson Museum and Austin Fire Station 1, has the potential to be a downtown gem. As it stands, however, it is an inefficiently used piece of prime downtown property that attracts crime.

Beyond people walking their dogs through the park, there’s very little activity taking place that one would expect in a park, explained Brendan Wittstruck, an architect who is working as a consultant for the city to help reimagine Brush Square.

“It’s probably used more for a pooping area than any normal recreational use,” he said.

The big long-term issue is the fire station. The station and its parking lot take up a lot of space that prevents the park from “achieving its highest and best use,” Wittstruck said.

The problem is, not only does the city have a shortage of fire stations, but the Brush Square station has the highest call volume of any of them. Not only is the station critical, conceded Wittstruck, but firefighters need a parking lot nearby so they don’t have to walk long distances with heavy gear.

The Brush Square Park Master Plan, which Wittstruck helped craft, envisions two phases of development. In the first phase, the parking lot will remain but be reconstructed to move it closer to Trinity Street, thereby allowing the city to consolidate more of the park’s green space.

The second phase of the plan envisions the fire department moving to another facility and the city scrapping the parking lot completely. The historic firehouse would remain, to potentially become a visitors center and cafe.

The renovated park would also include additional lighting, a new entrance wall equipped with a water-wall and new trees, a public restroom and other features aimed at making the park more welcoming to passersby. The second phase of the project anticipates an interactive fountain at the center of the park, equipped with “LED lighting at night and kinetic features that respond to movements by nearby park visitors,” according to the master plan.

Turning Brush Square into an active cultural and recreational space aligns with the city’s long-term goals of revitalizing nearby Waller Creek. Although Brush Square is within the boundaries of the Waller Creek Local Government Corporation, it is not included in the tax increment finance district that Council approved to help fund the Waller Creek Chain of Parks.

A livelier park would also fit neatly into the city’s plans to build a public plaza centered around a new downtown Capital Metro rail station.

Council is also expected to consider a potential expansion of the next-door Austin Convention Center. Critics argue that expanding a facility that few Austinites use runs counter to the goal of turning the area into a lively public space.

Like Waller Creek, Brush Square has become a popular refuge for homeless people. While the chain of parks is aimed at cleaning up the the creek and making it an attractive destination, city staffers are currently exploring whether some of the revenue generated in the TIF district can be used to fund homelessness services.

Mayor Steve Adler has proposed a plan by which an expanded convention center would be matched with a new levy on hotels to create a dedicated stream of funding for homelessness services.

“There are no current determined plans for Convention Center expansion but to the extent future plans impact the park, the park-facing elements of the Convention Center should be scaled for pedestrian interest, including retail frontage, streetscape amenities, and street trees,” says the master plan.

Council Member Kathie Tovo, who said she is awaiting a study that Council commissioned on the convention center before deciding her position on a potential expansion, told the Monitor that the new vision for Brush Square Park is part of “so much interesting work going on downtown,” including Waller Creek, the medical innovation zone and the rail station plaza.

The park’s two museums also fit with the “emphasis that we’re now placing on using public spaces to tell stories about diverse Austinites” throughout history. That will make the whole area more appealing to visitors, including nearby convention delegates, and Austin residents, said Tovo.

While funding has been approved for the design of the first phase, there is not yet any money allocated for construction. As a result, there’s no firm timeline for the project’s realization. The estimated cost is $3.1 million for phase one and $2.69 million in phase two.

The master plan was received positively at a Jan. 16 meeting of the Downtown Commission, with commissioners applauding the design. It will be reviewed by other boards and commissions in the coming months, including the Design Commission, Planning Commission, the Historic Landmark Commission and the Parks and Recreation Board.

This story has been corrected since publication, to revise estimated costs, which are $3.1 million for phase one and $2.69 million in phase two, not $2.33 million for phase one and $1.98 million in phase two as was originally reported.

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

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