9 December 2013
City parks are for the people. Yet the City of Austin Park's Department has been dealing under the table to modify one of Austin's oldest parks, Auditorium Shores. The goal? Turn it into an event venue for private gain. But there's a problem: the people that have been taking their dogs there since the park went off-leash in 1977. The private interests do not want the dogs, so Parks has proposed reducing the off-leash area from 18 acres to less than 4. As you can imagine, dog owners are furious. Read the Austin American Statesmen's report to find out what's really going on inside Austin Parks Department. And you you care, then come to City Hall tomorrow night (December 10. 2013) to show your support! Thanks, and still smiling, Elizabeth
Plan for Auditorium Shores, including smaller dog area, heads to a vote
Posted: 6:50 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013
BY SARAH COPPOLA - AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
The Austin parks department’s vision for a new, much smaller off-leash dog area at Auditorium Shores is generating a backlash ahead of two votes scheduled this week on the plan.
Currently, dogs are allowed off-leash on all 18 acres of Auditorium Shores, a popular park on the south shore of Lady Bird Lake.
Auditorium Shores, 12.09.13
The new plan would reduce the off-leash area to about 4.7 acres on Auditorium Shores’ west end. City parks officials say it would be a state-of-the-art dog area built with $1.1 million of a $3.5 million donation from event producers C3 Presents, the company that has held the Austin Food & Wine Festival at Auditorium Shores.
But the plan calls for making the middle section of Auditorium Shores on-leash only and for banning dogs altogether from the large event lawn on Auditorium Shores’ east end.
Those changes have dog owners fuming. They believe the city is more interested in turning Auditorium Shores into a profit-generating event venue than into a great space for Austinites who frequent the park.
“The changes have been proposed with very little public input and without figuring out who uses the park,” said Suzann Stover, who lives in a downtown condo and visits Auditorium Shores daily with her two dogs. “There has to be other solutions than banning dogs” from most of the park, she said.
Parks officials say the plan is partly meant to separate dogs from other visitors to Auditorium Shores to reduce the safety risks for runners, walkers, cyclists and dogs converging there.
On Tuesday, Austin’s parks board is scheduled to vote on the design of the off-leash area and other renovations planned for Auditorium Shores. The City Council will consider it on Thursday.
The parks department recently expanded the proposed off-leash area slightly, from 3.25 to 4.7 acres, and made a few other design changes after hearing from dog owners. Still, emails about the project reviewed by the American-Statesman show that the parks department spent months crafting the plan and a “message” for how to sell it — and seemed to view seeking public input as an afterthought.
Public park or event venue?
The hubbub over Auditorium Shores began last summer, when C3 offered the city $3.5 million to renovate the park at the same time as C3 sought the city’s permission to extend the Austin City Limits Music Festival, which it produces in Zilker Park, to two weekends.
C3 partner Charlie Jones said at the time that he was disappointed by the dusty conditions at Auditorium Shores during the 2012 Austin Food & Wine Festival, a high-end event for which C3 charges $250 to $850 per ticket.
The City Council approved the request for two ACL weekends and agreed to accept C3’s money. Although the parks department has repeatedly described the $3.5 million as a donation, it will actually be a reimbursement. The city of Austin will pay for the renovations up front, then C3 will reimburse it the $3.5 million over the next five years.
The city entered into a similar arrangement a few years ago, when C3 paid $2.5 million for a renovation of Zilker Park’s Great Lawn.
The Auditorium Shores renovations will include installing new sod and irrigation systems while eliminating the tiered stone walls to regrade the area into a more flexible event space. The off-leash area will have stone steps, a wooden deck and a concrete ramp that allows dogs to access the water; a landscaped barrier, but no fence; a drinking water station for dogs; grass, shade trees and places for dog owners to sit, said parks department official Marty Stump.
A $2.3 million overhaul of the hike-and-bike trailhead at Auditorium Shores, funded with bond money and a state grant, has already begun.
Construction of the other renovations would be done in phases. They would start later this month and be completed in early 2015. Different parts of Auditorium Shores would be closed at different times. The Butler Hike and Bike Trail would remain open during the work, but events normally held at Auditorium Shores, including the Urban Music Festival and Fun Fun Fun Festival, would have to relocate in 2014.
Dog owners say the parks department didn’t make clear until recently that dogs would be banned from a large swath of the park. They say the new off-leash area would be too small for the dozens of dogs and dog owners who visit Auditorium Shores daily. They also believe that the true intent of moving dogs to Auditorium Shores’ west end is to make room for more for-profit events on the east end.
“It seems like this is setting the stage to make it mostly an event venue,” said Cyndi Collen, president of the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association.
Collen notes that the contract between C3 and the city for the $3.5 million also seems to make C3’s donation contingent on a specific design that includes a smaller, off-leash dog area.
“The bottom line is that the donation is a conflict of interest, because C3 uses Auditorium Shores as an event space,” Collen said. “If they wanted to make a philanthropic donation, they wouldn’t have a contract about how the money has to be used.”
Jones said Friday that C3 “has had zero to do with the design. We have done nothing more than make a financial commitment to the city” to give money to improve Auditorium Shores.
“We do not have any opinion about the dogs out there,” Jones said. “These plans (for Auditorium Shores) have been developed by the parks department over many years. … We’re merely trying to do something good and give back to the city. … We have had nothing to do with the planning.”
Stump said the design is the product of more than a decade of planning for Auditorium Shores, and its intent is to balance the needs of dog owners, event organizers and other park visitors.
“There was never an agenda to adversely impact dog owners. We see this as a beneficial improvement. It’s not popular with folks who want the whole space available for off-leash use; however, everyone has to make some compromises to restore balance to that parkland,” Stump said.
“Controlling the message”
The controversy has reinforced the notion that Austin’s parks department can be clumsy about soliciting public input and using it to authentically shape public policy.
Prior parks department proposals to cut down drought-stricken trees at Barton Springs Pool, outsource the management of Zilker Botanical Garden and privatize the Austin Recreation Center, among others, generated public outcries and were scuttled because the department failed to involve the public and build consensus on the front end.
Hundreds of parks department emails obtained by the Statesman indicate that, as the department crafted the Auditorium Shores plan earlier this year, it sought input from a small group of dog-friendly stakeholders rather than asking the broader public what changes it wants to see at the park. The emails also show that parks officials kept C3’s Jones and the Austin Parks Foundation in the loop about the plan, though it’s not clear how much influence, if any, those entities had on the final design.
In one of the few mentions of C3, parks assistant director Jesse Vargas wrote to colleagues on March 5: “Spoke with Charlie (Jones from C3) – he’s ok with one-year shutdown (of the shores for the renovations) but it took a little persuading. … He is most concerned about dog traffic and asked that we move on this soon – before food and wine fest.”
The department wrote up several “talking points” about the plan in late March, including that the design was the culmination of “extensive public input” – even though only a select group of stakeholders had been shown it at that point.
Parks officials were aware the plan might generate controversy, but they seemed in a rush to get it drawn up and approved, the emails show. They focused on crafting and sticking to a positive message and seemed to view public input as a matter of duty — something to seek only after the big details had already been ironed out.
Stump warned his colleagues in an April 25 email: “The greater off-leash community has not been fully apprised of this initiative. The development of an enhanced off-leash area has been part of the master planning process and discussed openly in the stakeholder and public forums related to this project. However there has never been a formal proposal nor agreement to reduce the (off-leash area) at Auditorium Shores. Certain stakeholders know and understand the benefit and I would expect to be supportive. However, to my knowledge, the former OLAC (Off-Leash Advisory Committee) was never asked to endorse a reduced area. We need to be prepared to answer questions from (the City Council) on this issue and plan for further public/stakeholder outreach.”
Vargas responded that doing a 30-day public comment period would “show good faith and give us time to organize a meeting or two to firm up support or neutralize criticism.”
When an American-Statesman reporter asked about the plan for Auditorium Shores in early May, Vargas urged parks public information manager Victor Ovalle to stay on message. Asked by the Statesman how the $3.5 million would be financed — whether C3 would donate that lump sum up front or reimburse the city later — Ovalle said that hadn’t been determined, even though city budget and parks staffers had already privately discussed how the funding would work, the emails show.
When rumors of the Auditorium Shores design began to circulate in early May and a parks planner answered a Statesman reporter’s questions about the plan, Ovalle admonished the staffer in an email for not trumpeting C3.
“We have been working for weeks to give the headlines to C3 Presents and (the Austin Parks Foundation),” Ovalle wrote. “You talking to the media changed the front page headline and changed the focus to the (parks) department. The story was positive but the outcome was very different. It’s called public perception.”
A media relations staffer at the city asked Vargas in early June, prior to a City Council vote on the plan, if the communications office could mention the plan in a press release. Vargas was reluctant: “We’ve done a pretty good job of controlling the message,” he wrote. “Highlighting the item ahead of the (City Council) vote was not part of the plan.”
Austin’s parks board and City Council are scheduled to consider and vote on the plan for Auditorium Shores this week.
The parks board meets at 6 p.m. Tuesday in Room 1029 at Austin City Hall, 301 W.Second St.
The City Council meets Thursday in the City Council Chambers at City Hall. It’s not clear when it will discuss the item, but the council meeting begins at 10 a.m.