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Amphitheater, planetarium among $880M in improvements planned for Walter Long Park

Thursday, June 13, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

Money from last year’s bond package approved by voters in November is expected to be used to fund the first of hundreds of millions of dollars in improvements and development at Walter E. Long Metropolitan Park in East Austin.

Family-style recreation amenities to an existing park area off Decker Lake Road would represent the first phase of a large-scale redevelopment spelled out in a draft master plan for the nearly 3,700-acre park property. The recently completed master plan, made by city staff with Halff Associates of Richardson, Texas, shows the park’s redevelopment divided into five areas that take advantage of the lake while protecting two nature preserves and other ecological features.

Event spaces and an amphitheater, marina, planetarium, nature center and rentable cabins are among the features suggested in the master plan, with total cost estimates coming in at $880 million on the high end. Austin Towers has a thorough analysis of each area and the specific development plans for the park.

The plan presents some of the possible funding sources for the redevelopment, with a tax increment reinvestment zone seen as unsuitable because the surrounding residential development is unlikely to generate enough revenue from the increase in property taxes.

Greg Montes, park development coordinator for the Parks and Recreation Department, said last year’s bond package approval likely means the city is about five years away from another large bond request that could include money for the park’s improvements.

“We know a park this size is going to be a challenge when it comes to how we’re going to fund the construction and implementation of the master plan,” he said. “For metro and district parks throughout the city we generally look at bond funding as a potential for implementing development, but for a park this size that’s not the most feasible way of developing it. We’ll look at potential partners, activities and events that could be a source of some funds.”

The plan will be presented to the Parks and Recreation Board on June 25, and is expected to be presented for adoption by City Council in August.

Parks department and other city staff spent much of last year gathering public input on what improvements would best suit the park, which is almost completely undeveloped other than a portion that includes the Travis County Expo Center. Three public forums showed a preference for mostly “passive” recreation uses, with disapproval for a long-lingering proposal by a private developer to create a PGA-caliber golf course there.

Montes said the expected redevelopment of the 40-year-old expo center by Travis County and Rodeo Austin will present an opportunity to capitalize on the entertainment and events business already taking part on the southwest corner of the property.

“The writing on the wall recommends a huge need to redevelop the (expo center) site because it’s not a viable economic option to throw events out there,” he said. “We tried to look at that site as a neighbor that could help energize that area of the park, so the plan recommends event spaces to invite culture and entertainment events.”

District 1 Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison, whose district includes the park property, said the plan offers a road to much-needed investment in an underserved part of the city.

“I’m thrilled to see that we’re finally thinking about major public investments in a part of town that, frankly, went ignored for decades,” she said via email. “Of course, we’re still in the preliminary stages here, so I’m eager to dig into the details and see what we can do to make this impressive vision even better.”

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Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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