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Council postpones $1.1 million acquisition of Wood Street property for new parkland

Monday, October 26, 2020 by Jackson Barton

A small grassy field just off Sixth Street would provide easier access to the Shoal Creek Trail and preserve a historically significant piece of downtown, but City Council members delayed action on the $1.1 million purchase to address concerns that the money might be spent better elsewhere.

City Council opted to postpone a vote Oct. 15 on an item that would have authorized the acquisition of a quarter-acre plot on Wood Street adjoining Shoal Creek. Parks and Recreation proposed buying the plot to build an ADA-accessible path to the creek trail and to honor the area’s historic significance as an early African American settlement.

City Council postponed the decision to purchase the land amid uncertainty about the property’s use given its location and surroundings.

Council Member Kathie Tovo, whose district includes the property, said she supports the purchase because it would provide better access to the Shoal Creek Trail, which has been a long-term priority.

“The Shoal Creek Trail doesn’t just serve those who are living in the downtown area – either visiting or (living) downtown – but actually extends north,” Tovo said. “It’s a pretty major mobility corridor for cyclists and pedestrians.”

The money for the million-dollar purchase – about $125 per square foot – would come from parkland dedication fees generated in the downtown area. Under state law, parkland dedication fees can be spent in a quarter-mile to one-mile radius of where they were collected.

During a Council work session on Oct. 13, Parks and Recreation Director Kimberly McNeeley said purchasing the land would allow the city to build another ADA-accessible access point to the Shoal Creek Trail. There are already two ADA-accessible access points to the trail located nearby, one 400 feet north and another 500 feet south of the Wood Street property.

Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison supported postponement and took issue with the lot’s uninviting appearance, inaccessible location and distance from residential areas. Harper-Madison said the parkland dedication fees would be better spent in parkland-deficient areas with more residential development.

The lot sits inside of the larger Wood Street Historic Settlement, which was settled by formerly enslaved people at the end of the Civil War. There is already a historical marker for the area just a few hundred feet south near the bridge over Shoal Creek. McNeeley said purchasing the Wood Street land would allow the city to create an additional educational space for trailgoers to learn more about the legacy of the Black settlers. Educational programs could include signs with pictures and information about the families who lived there, or occasional live history events on the property.

Harper-Madison said in an email that while she applauds the intent to showcase the area’s history, an installation honoring the settlement at nearby Duncan Park would be more visible and accessible to the public than the Wood Street property.

While the city’s parkland acquisition guidelines prioritize land within a quarter-mile of residential development, the nearest residential development is a mile or more away from the Wood Street plot, Harper-Madison said.

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said he shared Harper-Madison’s concerns and supported postponement until they had the chance to ask more questions about the acquisition.

Tovo said she hopes to see the item pass at a later meeting. Harper-Madison said she would speak with other Council members about her concerns before supporting the purchase.

This story was written by a journalism student at the University of Texas at Austin. The Austin Monitor is working in partnership with the UT School of Journalism to teach and publish stories produced by students in the City and County Government Reporting course.

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