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Parks department’s 10-year plan lays out need for more spaces, programming

Thursday, September 5, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

Parks and Recreation staff are nearing the end of the public input process on the next 10-year plan for the city’s expansive system of parks facilities and programming needs.

In recent weeks PARD’s acting assistant director, Kim McKnight, has taken the draft of the department’s long-range plan to board and commission meetings around the city, gathering final pieces of feedback on the document that is expected to go before City Council for approval in mid-November. Once adopted it will help PARD staff and related groups set their priorities through 2028 for land acquisition, building projects, and what kinds of programming to offer throughout the system.

The 4,500 survey and public forum responses showed a desire for more nature programs and community gardens, more inclusive programming, safer off-leash areas for dogs, more natural spaces and preserves, improved access to parks facilities, and more programs for seniors and adults.

Those findings show how the city’s population growth over the past decade has changed the community’s expectations for parks facilities, and emphasize the need to acquire more parkland quickly, McKnight said.

“The explosive population growth is something we’re wanting to keep up with in terms of being able to provide adequate levels of parkland to our citizens because that’s a huge part of Austin’s quality of life,” she said. “Nature and trails have always been important to the community and it’s sort of now or never when it comes to making sure that as we grow and urbanize that we will always maintain a high quantity and quality of parkland.”

McKnight said the plan will become one of the primary documents used to plan future land acquisitions, capital improvements and programming schedules for the city’s 300-plus parks that combined cover more than 20,000 acres. It also makes the city eligible for funding from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, as well as various federal and philanthropic funding sources.

The plan doesn’t project costs for the land acquisition and improvement projects called for by participants in the public feedback process.

Because city leaders are committed to not using General Fund budget dollars for capital expenses, the document lists a variety of possible funding sources including external partnerships and gifts, capital fees added to other development projects, revenue from user fees, tax support including bond funding, franchising and license agreements, and grant funding.

For context, PARD’s total budget for 2020 is $34.3 million and its five-year budget total through 2024 is expected to add up to just over $203 million.

The department currently has $27.8 million in funding remaining to spend on projects approved in a 2012 bond funding vote that provided $77.7 million total for a variety of improvement projects. Those remaining dollars will pay for the completion of 17 remaining projects including an expansion of the Dove Springs Recreation Center, rehabilitating the bathhouse at Barton Springs and making improvements to the Elisabet Ney Museum.

Rich DePalma, a member of the city’s Parks and Recreation Board, said the plan will need to take into account estimates that show the parks system has $800 million in deferred maintenance and other needs. That figure, he said, shows the need for partnerships, including leveraging the resources of other city departments to address some parks needs.

Specifically, he promotes exploring agreements with Public Works and the Transportation Department as well as city utilities to make improvements and identify “joint-use” facilities that leverage existing infrastructure.

With the city recently ranking 70th in a national study of the availability of recreation centers, DePalma said there is a need to offer spaces for new forms of recreation.

“Our recreational facilities do not accommodate new recreational needs like ultimate frisbee, bocce, pickleball, and other
activities. We are also deficient in the number of dog parks, BMX parks, skate parks, park concessions, splash pads, and pools,” he said via email. “With all these needs, there is one thing that upsets me the most; we don’t have a single, fully built, all-abilities park that accommodates our kids with physical, mental, and sensory disabilities.”

The plan also points to partnerships with assorted foundations, conservancies and other nonprofit groups that have stepped forward through the years to care for specific parks or regions of the city.

Among those is the agreement PARD has with the Downtown Austin Alliance, which handles the upkeep and programming for the recently improved Republic Square Park space just north of City Hall.

Melissa Barry, vice president of planning for the DAA, said there are ongoing talks between many parks-related groups to better coordinate their efforts for larger improvements such as a fully connected greenbelt system around downtown. Barry said those groups might consider adopting common standards for giving and planning, with the goal of making it easier for donors to give money for combined projects that would be informed in part by the new long-range plan.

“There’s lots of discussions happening with a number of conservancies on how to enhance what they do and operate off of a similar set of guiding principles,” she said. “The purpose of these groups is to always have a bit of flexibility, but we’re all in the best place ever to advance the city’s public spaces and have everyone be a part of what the parks can offer downtown.”

Photo by smallcurio made available through a Creative Commons license.

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