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City to consider Walter Long park vision, while county moves ahead with expo center plans

Friday, August 21, 2020 by Chad Swiatecki

City Council will consider and possibly adopt the vision plan for Walter E. Long Metro Park later this month, more than a year after the plan was recommended for adoption by the Parks and Recreation Board.

A memo late last month from Parks and Recreation Department Director Kim McNeeley said the department is ready to present the plan to Council and will give a full presentation at the Aug. 27 meeting. The memo didn’t address the delay in bringing the plan for adoption and in an email to the Austin Monitor, McNeeley wrote, “The city of Austin had been engaged with the county in a number of conversations related to holistic planning and development of the park space and surrounding area.”

Travis County’s involvement in the park’s improvement is significant because it owns and operates the Travis County Exposition Center, which sits on city-owned land inside the park’s 3,600-plus acres.

The vision plan, which was created by Halff Associates following a significant community engagement process, spells out five phases of improvement totaling roughly $800 million, with the expo center’s expansion and reconstruction forecast in a separate 2016 report to cost around $500 million.

While the city moves forward with implementing the vision plan, which is expected to take decades, Travis County has reconvened its Travis County Exposition Center Redevelopment Engagement and Education Committee, which is expected to deliver its initial recommendations on the redevelopment by the end of October.

Rodeo Austin CEO Rob Golding, the leader of that group, said the city appears committed to using as much of its Hotel Occupancy Tax revenue as possible on the planned expansion of the Austin Convention Center rather than helping to fund the redevelopment of one of the largest tracts of land in East Austin.

In recent years City Council and county officials have negotiated unsuccessfully for the city to essentially give up a 2 percentage point piece of the hotel tax so that the county could levy it to help pay for the expo center work.

“I talked with (Assistant City Manager) Rodney Gonzales about this and when I said, gee, it seems like this might be a time for us to rethink whether we need a multibillion-dollar new convention center downtown and maybe there are better, more impactful uses for the HOT tax, his response on behalf of the city was (they) are still doing the analysis on the convention center and we’re not prepared to give anything up until that is complete,” Golding said.

Golding also said he thinks the vision plan for the park won’t bring enough community benefits to the area that is expected to see considerable growth over the next 20-plus years.

“I didn’t see the significant community impact or opportunity that could be achieved with nearly 3,000 acres of land that’s in a key location directly in the middle of the pattern of growth for the area. I didn’t see the great public benefit based on what I saw in the master plan, and I didn’t think it was particularly good,” he said.

“We try to focus on just the couple hundred acres that is the expo center – how do we activate that in conjunction with the Colony Park redevelopment and perhaps the Green Line expansion and park-and-ride expansion, and given all the infrastructure value out there, what’s contained in that plan is not reflective of that at all.”

Beth Carroll, a resident and community activist who lives near the park, has been in talks with city and PARD officials in recent years about the creation of a nonprofit group that could start creating programming at the park as some of the first steps in its improvement. She said funds from the city’s Neighborhood Partnering Program and other sources could possibly be used to create a 13-mile trail through the park, and partnerships with area rowing clubs would also represent “low-hanging fruit.”

Carroll does not expect every improvement spelled out in the plan to become a reality.

“My opinion is they threw everything and the kitchen sink at it and hoped a portion of it would stick, which is pretty smart because once things are adopted by Council they hold the parks department to that plan and don’t really allow any deviation, but you can omit things in the future,” she said. “It would be great if everything showed up, but the more likely option is we’re going to get a portion of the plan and even that will be an improvement for the area.”

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