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Photo by Waterloo Greenway Conservancy

City leaders focus on the importance of green space

Friday, September 30, 2022 by Chad Swiatecki

As the ambitious $5 billion plan to lower the downtown sections of Interstate 35 moves slowly forward, those who have lived through a similar effort in Dallas emphasize the need and opportunity to emphasize green space in any cap-and-stitch plan that materializes.

Members of the local real estate and planning industries heard some of the firsthand experiences of the creation of Klyde Warren Park during the most recent monthly breakfast panel discussion held by Urban Land Institute Austin that dealt with the importance of green space in urban settings. The 5.2-acre park that sits over the Woodall Rogers Freeway opened in 2012 after roughly 30 years of discussion and debate over the future of the city’s downtown following the lowering of the freeway.

Tara Green, a past president of the park, said a decision by the aerospace giant Boeing to move its headquarters to Chicago instead of Dallas caused city leaders to begin reimagining how its public spaces could be more inviting for visitors, with the creation of four downtown parks in the past decade.

“That was the kick in the teeth that Dallas needed to rethink downtown. Part of that rethinking was green space and space between the places mattered to create walkable destinations,” she said, noting that the $112 million fundraising effort was followed by $6.2 billion in new investment near the park’s construction.

“You have a really great opportunity here in Austin to unlock a lot of potential, connect a community that was bisected by the freeway.”

Panelists with an Austin focus shared details of the progress being made on the Texas Capitol Complex and the Waterloo Greenway, both of which will have parks and green spaces as a primary ingredient.

Jesus Aguirre, CEO of Waterloo Greenway, said the second phase of the linear park system is expected to break ground by the end of the year. That $84 million section will see significant reconstruction of Waller Creek from Fourth Street to Lady Bird Lake with the addition of walking paths that will allow visitors to be surrounded by plants and water features in the heart of downtown.

Ryan Losch, associate principal for the Page architecture firm connected to the Capitol complex, said the stretch from 11th Street to Dean Keeton will be remade as a more pedestrian-friendly setting for the thousands of visitors to the state Capitol each year. While the creation of significant office space for state employees is the primary need for the complex, he said the ability to move parking underground will create significant open area complemented by buildings that will be designed to encourage outdoor activation.

Because the Texas Facilities Commission is prohibited by state law from including residential uses in its projects, Losch said there will be no condominiums or other homes with high price tags crowding in on the views or public uses of the space.

“There’s two sides to that. The downside is that we’d love to have 24/7 activation of park spaces, so having residential around it is certainly a benefit to activating a park at all hours,” he said. “The flip side is not having the opportunity for housing, (which) means we’re not going to have high-end housing that is unattainable for people who want to take advantage of that green space.”

Aguirre and Green said parks also have an important role to play in addressing the needs of the homeless who tend to congregate downtown.

“Parks cannot solve the challenge of homeless or people who are unhoused, but parks have a role to play in that conversation and it’s up to every individual community to figure out where they want their parks on the spectrum of opportunities,” Green said. “It could be a place where people go for services where agencies are distributing care and relationships are built and people who are unhoused can find the services they need or link up to agencies that can provide what they need. It could be a place that is open and safe for all as long as you obey the rules.”

Aguirre highlighted an ongoing program in Waterloo Park that provides weekly painting classes for those experiencing homelessness as an example of how parks can stay involved in helping to improve the lived experience for everyone in a downtown setting.

“Part of the thing we should be doing in parks is ensuring there are programming opportunities for folks who are experiencing homelessness. The other piece is making sure the staff that’s working in the park has the training and the resources and the ability to engage with the individuals who are experiencing homelessness … they’re always going to be there, and that’s a challenge we can’t solve in the parks, but we have to contribute to it as well and not assume we’re going to push people out.”

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