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Austin's great outdoors
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Austin's great outdoors
As Northwest Austin continues to be built out, fewer areas of undeveloped land remain while park acquisition remains a challenge.
But one trend that Colin Wallis, executive director of the nonprofit Austin Parks Foundation, is noticing is a greater interest in incorporating green space into development. He said developers often contact the nonprofit to discuss their interest in creating green space, whether it be a small park, newly planted trees, connecting or extending trails or even a greenbelt.
“We’re seeing more and more developers being interested in talking to us about how in partnership with their development that they can carve out and create some green space, even if it’s really small,” he said. “They’re understanding it’s not just philanthropy, it’s not just environmentalism, it’s what their customers want.”
Additionally, Austin residents love their parks and being outdoors, Wallis said.
“People didn’t come here because we were Dallas and Houston and had a lot of concrete; people came here because it’s a beautiful, outdoor-related place,” he said. “We all have to work together to make sure it stays that way.”
The great outdoors
Austin has 16,369 acres of dedicated parkland, said Randy Scott, a park planner for the city. Although Northwest Austin does not have many metropolitan parks, he said, it does have numerous neighborhood parks and greenbelts. Scott said the city has tried to acquire additional parkland to the north and west of Walnut Creek Metropolitan Park, but efforts to put land acquisition on the last two bond cycles failed.
Some park visitors in Northwest Austin seem content with the facilities available in the area. Vince Quezada and his wife regularly take their golden retriever, Ozzie, to several North Austin parks, including Balcones District Park and Schroeter Park, both located near Duval Road. He said they like that the parks are secluded and peaceful. Another Schroeter Park visitor is James Dvorscak, who said there are three parks a short distance from his home.
“That’s plenty, enough to keep me occupied,” he said.
Resident Elizabeth Hilson said she loves taking her dog, Sarah Prudence, to any park that has water. She said Austin has great parks compared with other cities, but she would like to see more options for people with dogs.
“I love being outside; there can’t be enough wilderness,” she said.
The Anderson Mill Limited District, a 1,200-acre area bounded by Anderson Mill Road, US 183 and RM 620, was annexed in 2008 but still maintains 60 acres of parkland, including two pools and 6 miles of trails. District Manager Mark Maxwell said that in the annexation agreement with the city, Anderson Mill parks, trails and pools are open to anyone. Residents who live outside of the district often make up as much as 50 percent of participants in district-run programs, Maxwell said.
“Because the city doesn’t have as many parks out here, [AMLD] provides facilities for the residents, and the benefit is the city doesn’t have to pay for it,” he said.
Longtime Northwest Austin resident Robin Drerup started growing concerned when more and more undeveloped green space disappeared and more concrete started appearing in the form of retail stores and hotels. She said at The Domain, she was amazed even to see a small plot of green space on Braker Lane at Domain Drive now under construction.
“We’re just really going to be totally locked in with nothing but concrete,” Drerup said.
In 2012, Endeavor Real Estate Group, which planned and is continuing to develop The Domain, completed the first phase of a 9-acre park off Alterra Parkway near Burnet Road. At full build-out, development principal Ben Bufkin said there will be two additional 1/2-acre parks and more than a mile of hike and bike trails. He said more park facilities will be delivered in 2013.
Wallis said developers are realizing that incorporating green space can be profitable and cited examples of Millennium Park in Chicago and New York City’s High Line, which was an old elevated freight rail line that was converted into a park.
“It turns out it’s good business to preserve green space,” he said. “Austin is particularly sensitive to that, and I think people in Austin understand that better than most people around the country.”
Because AMLD maintains its own parks, Maxwell said the district has the advantage of a more aggressive maintenance schedule than some cities, including Austin.
“Whenever [a city has] a budget crunch, maintenance is one of the first things that gets cut,” he said. “I think that’s one of the main reasons that the limited district was voted into existence because [the residents] wanted to make sure that our parks continue to be maintained as they had become accustomed to.”
Austin’s parks department has a maintenance goal of having one employee for every 75 acres of parkland. As of now, that number is about one employee per 160 acres. Scott said the department has a $55 million annual budget and is working to increase awareness of the higher level of maintenance it could achieve with more funding.
To help maintain the city’s parks, the APF hosts an annual event, It’s My Park Day, each March in which thousands of residents citywide volunteer to clean up and maintain parks. Companies often contact the nonprofit to coordinate park work days for team-building events for their employees. Wallis said these activities significantly help out the parks and recreation department, which is underfunded.
“We’re slowly working more hand in hand with [the department] so that we can use our volunteer hours to alleviate some of the jobs that they have to pay people to do,” he said.