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Council to consider park priorities, long-range plan

Wednesday, November 13, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

City Council will consider adoption of the Austin Parks and Recreation Long-Range Plan on Thursday, though not all Council members are sure the plan’s top priorities jibe with the city’s vision for housing, walkability and equity.

If adopted, the plan will become part of the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan and initiate a set of strategies to add between 4,000 and 8,000 acres of city parkland over the next 10 years and shoot for a ratio of 24 acres of parkland for every 1,000 residents.

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan pulled the plan for discussion Tuesday to explain his preference that acquiring new parkland isn’t more important than making sure parks are usable and located within walking distance of neighborhoods where people actually live.

“The challenge with the metric of acres,” he explained, “is you get an improvement in your metric no matter where you put the acres, as opposed to it being where parkland is deficient, or as opposed to it being where we have equity issues, or as opposed to it being parkland that is used or even operational.”

Kim McKnight, with the Parks and Recreation Department, said there’s a good reason why acquisition is so central to the plan: “It’s important to bear in mind that if we’re not really clear and aggressive with our land acquisition goals that we could be looking at a pretty severe parkland deficiency issue in 20 years, and so the parkland that we’re acquiring now is really here to serve generations after us.”

Flannigan acknowledged the need for acquisition, but objected to using it as a primary metric of success without other considerations. Under that metric alone, he said, it would appear to make the situation worse for the city to add an affordable housing development next to a park without simultaneously buying more parkland to even out the ratio of residents to parkland.

To balance things out, Flannigan proposed striking the specific acreage per capita numbers from mention in the plan’s chapter on city recommendations. Council Member Alison Alter, however, said the acquisition target is a “logical place to start.” The bigger idea in the plan, she said, is that parks can serve as a “relief from urban life” and they can’t do that without securing the parkland in the first place.

Flannigan remained uncomfortable with the apparent primacy of the acreage per capita ratio, but Kimberly McNeeley, director of the parks department, said his emphasis on walkability and access “might be able to live together” with the focus on acquisition with the right nuancing of the plan’s language.

Council members Ann Kitchen and Kathie Tovo asked Flannigan to clarify his amendments so that they wouldn’t be read as though PARD would be taking a stance on housing capacity and land use decisions in order to boost density near existing parklands. He conceded that parts of his amendment suggesting that the department would support policies to get housing near parks seem to put the cart before the horse.

Instead, he explained, his amendment is intended to encourage parkland development and activation in places where many people already live or where Council has predicted they will be living in the future, according to Imagine Austin and other plans.

McKnight reminded Council that parks are not only used as urban infill but that larger parklands also play a big part in mitigating the impacts of climate change. Nonetheless, she said Flannigan’s “fresh look” could help the plan and the department will consider highlighting the goal of walkability and access while maintaining the acreage per capita standard.

Alter also agreed that access and park activation near housing density could be a priority as long as the acquisition goals are preserved, which Flannigan accepted.

“I’m not trying to eliminate any metric,” he said, “but more contextualize that I think we’re making a shift in the city to think more about equity and to think more about actual outcomes, which to me is more access than ownership.”

Council Member Greg Casar will also be bringing an amendment to the plan Thursday that acknowledges areas outside of the “urban core” – defined in the plan as the area bordered by Ben White Boulevard to the south, MoPac Expressway to the west and U.S. Highway 183 to the north and east – are more urban in nature than many neighborhoods within those borders.

The plan defines neighborhoods beyond the urban core as park-deficient if they are more than a half-mile from a park. Within the urban core, even if the neighborhoods are less dense, park deficiency is defined as being over a quarter-mile from a park.

Casar said the plan’s criteria for access should acknowledge the fact that the city is not necessarily more urban within the core boundary or more suburban beyond it. Three of the 10 densest neighborhoods in the city fall outside those borders, he said.

Photo by MarkScottAustinTX made available through a Creative Commons license.

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