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Dougherty redevelopment plans to go before Council in May with parks board approval

Thursday, April 4, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

After voters decided last November to approve $25 million in bond funding to replace the Dougherty Arts Center, the Parks and Recreation Department immediately got to work designing a new facility specifically intended to accommodate the arts.

With hundreds of voices from public input and an assessment of the feasibility of all the previously proposed sites, the parks department elected to locate the new arts center behind the ZACH Theatre and adjacent to the Parks and Recreation headquarters off of Toomey Road. Centrality, according to Kevin Johnson, a project manager for the Parks and Recreation Department, was “high on everyone’s list.”

However, the central waterfront location stirred up some concerns from Parks and Recreation Board members at their March 26 meeting. Board Member Romteen Farasat expressed his hesitation at approving a plan that put almost 80,000 square feet of impervious cover – nearly half of which is a parking garage – next to the Colorado River without any plans for mitigation or runoff beyond a retention pond. “I think that’s something we need to be a little more concerned about,” he said.

Board Member Kate Mason-Murphy also had concerns about the potential runoff from a two-story parking garage. “What is that going to be doing to our downstream neighbors with that much runoff?” she asked.

The potential pollution that could be generated by 200 additional parking spaces raised the issue of the traffic in the Lamar Boulevard-Barton Springs Road area. Popular restaurants and a burgeoning arts district are already overflowing the real estate south of the river with traffic. Board Member Dawn Lewis said, “This is a great location – but also traffic in that area is awful.”

Johnson explained to the board that the parks department has already consulted with the surrounding neighbors as well as the city’s transportation department to determine the least impactful way to get Austinites to and from the new Dougherty  Arts Center. Part of the considerations includes removing some of the surface parking from the ZACH Theatre and extending the parking garage in height. Board Member Richard DePalma suggested removing some of the parking from Parks and Rec headquarters and combining it with the arts center parking in the garage.

At the same time, board members were curious about the fate of the old Dougherty. “It is likely the existing building will be demolished,” said Johnson. The 24,000-square-foot building is located in a flood plain and atop a landfill, which makes it nonviable, according to multiple city assessments, to be renovated or modernized. Coupled with the fact that the city is considering adopting Atlas 14 flood maps and the current arts center finds itself inopportunely positioned for modern-day use.

One study by the city showed that the building would need to be elevated as much as 7 feet above its current grade to allow for redevelopment on the site, a reality that Johnson said takes the idea of maintaining the Dougherty at its current location out of the question.

As a result of its difficult position, the building has slowly crumbled. The back portion of the roof is currently being replaced, according to Johnson.

Although there is no consensus yet on whether the associated 80-spot surface parking lot will be removed along with the building, Johnson said that the current budget includes funding for the demolition and mitigation of the current Dougherty site. Additionally, he noted that the $25 million budget that was granted to Parks and Rec by the 2018 bond is supplemented by an additional $3 million left over from the 2012 bond.

With a $28 million budget to work with, the parks department has planned a 40,000-square-foot structure where the Austin Independent School District baseball fields are now. The other two fields, which belong to the South Austin Little League, will remain. The design includes space for classrooms, a small second theater and more arts and crafts uses than what is provided currently as well as outdoor courtyard spaces. Barbara Austin, a landscape architect on the project and the director of park planning and design at RVi Planning and Landscape Architecture, explained that the refurbishing of the parkland will make 3.3 additional acres of parkland available to the public.

Although the parks board asked that more definitive plans return before any final design is approved, it unanimously recommended the proposed location for the new Dougherty Arts Center. The designs will go before the Planning Commission and the Arts Commission before heading to City Council for final approval in May.

Photo by Larry D. Moore [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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