Proposition B Swaps Parkland for ... More Parkland

City seeks voters OK of Lakeshore Blvd. land swap proposed by Oracle


Oracle's South Shore campus on Lakeshore Boulevard (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Austin voters this election cycle will go to the polls to weigh in on the eight constitutional amendments put before all Texans, the high-dollar and highly emotional Save Austin Now police staffing proposal contained in Proposition A, and ... one other thing. Proposition B asks whether the city should agree to lease a 9-acre plot of parkland, currently home to the Parks and Recreation Department's Central Main­ten­ance Complex, through a public bidding process. Any such "alienation" of public parkland in Texas requires voter approval; should that be granted, in return for the CMC site at South Lakeshore Boulevard and Pleasant Valley, PARD will ask for at least 48 acres of waterfront land contiguous to an existing city park; the money to build a new CMC elsewhere; and partial or full funding to remove the maintenance facility at Fiesta Gardens and restore that land to parkland.

“Having approximately four times the land that you would have had, being able to have the maintenance yard paid for, and not requiring taxpayers to pay for it seemed like a pretty large public benefit, in comparison to or equal to what could be done at the nine acres.”– PARD Director Kimberly McNeeley

PARD Director Kimberly McNeeley says conversations about the CMC site's shortcomings predate her promotion to lead the department in 2019. "It doesn't have enough parking and there's some configuration pieces that are problematic for our team," McNeeley told the Chronicle. "How can we solve that problem?" This summer, Oracle, the multinational tech giant whose South Shore campus sits next door to the CMC (it became the firm's global headquarters in 2020), offered a potential solution. Oracle's bid for the property includes the required funding (yet to be determined), plus the 48-acre Driveway Austin Motorsports property on Del­wau Lane along the Colo­ra­do River, which Oracle currently has under contract. Although Driveway Austin houses a motorsports race track, most of the site is undeveloped and surrounded by the existing John Treviño Park, with Urban Roots Farm and the Walnut Creek Trail nearby. Currently, Oracle is the site's only prospective bidder; still, if the proposition passes, any entity could theoretically place a bid as long as it meets PARD's three requirements. The tech company has donated $250,000 to the pro-Proposition B Grow Austin Parks PAC, according to the PAC's most recent campaign finance report.

For PARD, the conditions of the swap are desirable. "[We] understand that there's value to parkland," said McNeeley. "Having approximately four times the land that you would have had, being able to have the maintenance yard paid for, and not requiring taxpayers to pay for it seemed like a pretty large public benefit, in comparison to or equal to what could be done at the nine acres."

Some community members, however, are apprehensive about letting go of PARD property near the lake. Martha Cotera of the Latino Policy Coalition worked on the Town Lake Corridor in the Eighties; back then, she said, "The plan was that these facilities would age out and be removed, but the land would become parkland." Cotera authored a petition to City Council to rescind putting Proposition B on the Nov. 2 ballot, and is concerned that as Oracle expands, South Lakeshore Boulevard could eventually become a private road. Though the maintenance facility is not open to the public, it could theoretically become a public park in the future – a possibility Cotera is determined to preserve.

There are also concerns about the quick path Proposition B took to the ballot. Council first considered the ballot measure July 29 and approved it two weeks later, without its being reviewed by the Parks Board. Cotera is critical of the lack of public input and finds it problematic that a corporation turned to the city to negotiate the fate of urban parkland. "Compare that with Andrew Jackson Zilker, who donated his whole ranch [the core of what is now Zilker Park] and Barton Springs to the city."

The Austin Parks Foundation, along with other prominent backers like the Trail Foundation and the Travis County Demo­crat­ic Party, has endorsed Prop B. Colin Wallis, APF's CEO, doesn't worry about the neighborhoods around Lake­shore Boul­e­vard losing access to parkland: "It's not in an area that is parkland-deficient. It's adjacent to the hike-and-bike trail and [Roy] Guerrero Park." Wallis says PARD is consistently underfunded, "so the fact that they're looking at a creative solution to a problem is commendable. The Fiesta Gardens site has been sitting there for a long time, underutilized, so the idea that it could potentially become active parkland is a really great thing."

The last successful vote to alienate Austin parkland was in 1998, part of the package to build the Palmer Events Center and convert the former Palmer Auditorium into the Long Center for the Performing Arts. In 2000, a proposal to alienate parkland at Lake Walter E. Long for a private golf course failed with 49% of the vote. As McNeeley says, "The beauty of this opportunity is that the public gets to decide."


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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

November 2021 General and Special Elections, Proposition B, Oracle, Parks and Recreation Department, Parks and Recreation Department Central Maintenance Complex, Kimberly McNeeley, Grow Austin Parks PAC, Driveway Austin Motorsports, Austin parks, parkland, Fiesta Gardens, Martha Cotera, Latino Policy Coalition, Town Lake Corridor, Austin Parks Foundation, The Trail Foundation, Travis County Democratic Party, Colin Wallis

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