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Naming process for Waterloo Park features raises questions about equity

Wednesday, June 30, 2021 by Amy Smith

What’s in a name? That question quickly moved to the fore of a Parks and Recreation Board discussion last week about proposed names for new features at Waterloo Park, which is set to reopen to the public Aug. 14 after years of renovation work and a rebranding process.

For starters, the names proposed for key features in the park, such as an amphitheater, a plaza and a children’s play area, are all donors to the Waterloo Greenway Conservancy, which oversees the development of a parks system along Waller Creek in downtown Austin. Five of the 12 names belong to current or former board members of the conservancy, who have the means to donate large sums of money to community endeavors.

No one on the parks board had any quibble with the list of names members were asked to recommend to the director of the parks department. Rather, it was a lack of equity and diversity of those whose contributions to Austin also hold significant value.

Noting the park’s proximity to East Austin, Rich DePalma asked, “What’s the plan to make this park feel inclusive? Will families from Southeast Austin feel welcome, or families from East Austin, or basically anybody who doesn’t have a Caucasian-sounding name?”

Interim CEO Kathy Miller, who took on the position in March while the conservancy board launched a search to hire a new leader, assured the board there are other naming opportunities in the park.

“On the one hand, we have to face the reality that the philanthropic gifts make it possible for our park to be more welcoming for everyone and will allow us to do programming and engage in activities that make this park welcoming to all of Austin,” Miller said.

On the other hand, she added, the naming opportunities have been solely based on philanthropy. “There are features in the park that remain unnamed and can be named, and I think we should work together with our city of Austin partners to think through the ability to name those for other important figures.”

Both Board Member Laura Cottam Sajbel and Chair Dawn Lewis expressed similar sentiments about the need to create a process for incorporating equity into the city’s naming and renaming procedures. In the end, the board voted 5-0-1, with Sajbel abstaining, to recommend the list of names that will grace various features in the park.

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