Photo by the city of Austin
Wednesday, September 2, 2020 by Jo Clifton

Council won’t vote on Walter E. Long Park plan now

Despite the fact that the vision plan for the nearly 3,700-acre Walter E. Long Park has been in the works for years and has won approval from both the Parks and Recreation Board and the Environmental Commission, a majority of City Council members expressed reluctance to move forward on the plan at Tuesday’s work session. The item will likely be withdrawn from Thursday’s Council agenda.

While Council members praised the work done by the parks department and its consultants, several expressed concern about what is projected eventually to be an $800 million price tag for the far Northeast Austin park.

Kimberly McNeeley, director of Parks and Recreation, explained several times that it would be years before the entire plan would be implemented. In fact, what she wanted most at this point was authorization to move forward with spending $3.5 million on upgrades to the park. She said her department has put that money aside to start the initial development, noting that the funds were approved in a 2018 bond election specifically for park improvements.

McNeeley also reminded Council that Walter E. Long is seven times the size of Zilker Park, “and it took us a number of decades to develop Zilker Park.”

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan called the plan “Six Flags over Decker,” adding, “There’s a fine line between a vision and a hallucination.” He concluded, “Under no circumstances can I vote for it this week.” Flannigan said he was not even sure this park was the best place to spend the $3.5 million PARD had already set aside.

The park sits in Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison’s District 1, but she was having technical difficulties with the internet during the Zoom meeting and encouraged Flannigan to ask his questions first. When he was done, she told him, “You asked literally all of my questions.” While she praised the effort that went into the planning, Harper-Madison said she was not ready to vote on the plans either.

Council members Alison Alter, Kathie Tovo and Pio Renteria all indicated they might want to move forward with some part of the plan in the near future. Tovo and Alter were particularly interested in the idea of allowing people to camp in the park, with Tovo noting that camping has become much more popular during the pandemic.

McNeeley said, “We could withdraw and come back after we’ve been able to answer questions. … Our biggest concern is just being able to deliver anything to the public” after spending so much effort gathering public input.

This story has been changed since publication to correct Council Member Jimmy Flannigan’s quote.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department: The city department responsible for the city's park system, rec centers, and associated infrastructure.

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