A Critique of the TUR Partners Report on Town Lake Park

by Larry Akers

While TUR Partners made some reasonable recommendations regarding operations at Town Lake Park, their design recommendations became convoluted and very expensive and would produce only marginal improvements in conditions.  This critique starts with the failure sources in their analysis and explains how dubious premises led to a cascade of unfortunate design choices.

In summary:

. The URS traffic study concluded minimal impact from snipping Riverside, and no impact with modest mitigation.

. The URS study did no comparison of Riverside closed/open with projected 2039 demand, yet because of projected traffic demand, recommended keeping Riverside open.  No evidence that Riverside closure would complicate future problems.

. To accommodate the unsubstantiated URS recommendation, TUR proposed $31 million of work to suppress Riverside with land bridges, and leveraged that to justify $45 million to replace existing parking garage with one underground.  $76 million for a half measure of park continuity and no increase in parking is disproportionate cost for the benefit.

. Demolishing the current garage would free up land marginal for recreation but accommodating for Long Center expansion into parkland outside its legal boundaries.

. Daugherty Arts Center relocation is an interesting possibility, but seems motivated more by Long Center/PEC expansion than DAC programming.

. Proposed new commercial operations on current DAC site is out of character with repeatedly expressed community desires.

. Financing proposals are out of character with community philosophy and currently available options.

. Operations recommendations are worth considering.

The URS Traffic Study

A dominant feature of the 1999 Town Lake Park Master Plan was a difficult tradeoff agreement made by stakeholders and planners — the use of a substantial and central portion of the parkland space for the Palmer Events Center (PEC) footprint in exchange for the elimination of Riverside Drive between the north side of the PEC and the railroad tracks.  The elimination of the roadway would unify Butler Park and Auditorium Shores, finally creating the critical mass of contiguous parkland necessary for a great metropolitan park and eliminating the pedestrian hazard of crossing a commuter roadway.

Supporting the Riverside decision was a thorough traffic and parking study that showed that even unmitigated closure of the street would induce only an additional 7 seconds of delay to the average commute across the river.  However, subsequent studies, while validating the technical data from the first study, failed to consider mitigating measures that would have negated the minor delays imposed by closure. The verbiage in the reports was clearly biased against closure, and their conclusions recommended against closure in spite of technical data supporting its feasibility.

Thus community had long awaited the URS analysis of the potential closure in hopes that mitigation measures would finally be adequately studied and an unbiased view of the analysis would finally be expressed. Since traffic volumes after 2007 were substantially smaller than those originally studied in 1999, there was reason for optimism that closure would be shown feasible and would be recommended.

In fact, the URS study delivered on this technical promise.  Again, the study showed that unmitigated closure would induce only a 5 second delay to an average morning commute across the river through the district, and an 9 second delay at the evening peak, differences that would be virtually unnoticeable in the average travel time through the district.  Furthermore, mitigation measures, particularly the recommended ones, would completely negate this induced delay.  The study showed, as previous studies had, that congestion would be added in the South First Street north-south corridor, but travel times would be improved in the Lamar corridor.

Moreover, an assumption in the study, that half the drivers formerly using Riverside through the park would use Barton Springs for their east-west travel instead, and the rest would use Chavez, would seem to come under doubt.  Why would half the drivers on the downtown-Zilker Park route opt for South First when the Lamar route would offer a clear win?  Perhaps a 70-30 split should have be been modeled, as it would more realistically reflect the choices drivers would make when confronted with congestion.  This relative offloading of South First would reduce the demand that the study showed would degrade its intersections, the very degradation that was most highlighted as a
negative in the report.

In any case, the closure of Riverside with minor mitigation measures was shown to have no deleterious effect on traffic movement through the district, and only negligible effect even without mitigation measures.

The Fallout (penetrating deep into the Earth)

But this well-founded technical conclusion, which validated earlier technical data (if not the unfounded conclusions drawn from that data), was swamped by an astonishing turn at the end of the study.  Traffic loads projected 25 years in the future were modeled with the Riverside closed.  The situation would be bad.  Therefore, the report concluded, the closure should not occur.  But incredibly, no attempt was made to compare that scenario with a Riverside open scenario.  Clearly that situation would also be bad.  There being no impact on closing Riverside today, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that having it closed 25 years in the future would make the situation any better or worse than having it open.  This colossal failure of objectivity was the basis for the report’s conclusion that the commuter road should be retained through the heart of the park.

Having received the report, TUR Partners acknowledged that closure would have no current impact, but the study’s unwarranted view of the future was TUR’s sole justification for recommending that the road be retained for commuters.  This defining choice was the first domino in a series of other defining recommendations made by TUR.

In order to make some kind of connection between Butler Park and Auditorium Shores, TUR proposed depressing the road and constructing land bridges to cross it.  This half-measure would resolve the pedestrian safety issue, but it would do little or nothing to create the unified space of a great park or to open up its heart to a feature, like a festival plaza, that could knit the scattered amenities of the park together into a whole.  Furthermore, it would be expensive, $31 million estimated, an amount far exceeding the originally projected cost of the entire park development of Butler and Auditorium Shores.

Depressing the roadway fit right into a scheme for underground parking that TUR was touting from the very outset of their engagement.  It would provide underground access to a new, $45 million underground lot, whose financing was left to speculation.  Staff comments on the proposal show that TUR may have not done the homework to support such a significant pair of recommendations.

Park Parking (Roof Roof!)

To TUR’s credit, they found no fault with the original 1999 parking demand study.  Their 1200-space underground lot would only replace the 1200 spaces lost when, on their recommendation, the existing garage east of the PEC would be destroyed.  But for no additional parking capacity, and for no measured benefit to commuters, the price tag of the unsupported desire to preserve Riverside Drive was now up to $76 million.

The problem with the existing garage is not its capacity, but its inefficiency at emptying itself quickly.  Its design is such that every car backing out of a space stops progress for everyone else queueing to leave the building.  Rather than proposing a $45 million replacement, TUR might have looked at reconfiguration and possible structural extension to improve its flow.  Even this expense should be carefully weighed, as only the Long Center, and not the PEC, tends to dump all its visitors simultaneously, and the garage, while in part serving the Long Center, does not belong to the Long Center.

Empire Rising

But TUR had ideas about using the footprint of the current garage, saying it could add open space to the park.  This is quite a dubious claim, as a sliver of land at the corner of two heavily travelled thoroughfares and walled in by major facilities is hardly desirable recreational space.

A different agenda emerges with a later stage proposal to allow the Long Center to expand its venue into that space, and to possibly add a second parking garage at the corner of Barton Springs and S. First. Further accommodation of the expansionist dreams of the Long Center comes with the proposal to relocate the Daugherty Arts Center (DAC) between the PEC and the Long Center.  If this suits the DAC’s programming needs and if financing can be found, this would be an innovative way to keep the DAC in the immediate district.  However, almost all the supporting argument TUR makes for this new facility is about how the Long Center and PEC could utilize the building. Expansion of the Long Center outside its lease boundaries would require a public vote, which could be further complicated by interaction with the Town Lake Park Community Events Center Venue district.  Financial participation by the Long Center was not
discussed.

Financing

Speaking of finance, by naming the parkland south of Riverside Drive as the “Venue District”, TUR suggests that the venue district does not also include Auditorium Shores.  There is no shred of history in the creation of the venue project to suggest that Auditorium Shores is not part of the venue, and plenty of well-vetted, City Council adopted policy to indicate that it is.

Which leads to the discussion of financing the changes TUR proposes. A variety of money raising schemes — a Public Improvement District (PID), Tax Increment Financing (TIF), commercial revenue retention, philanthropy, and private enterprise within the district are all presented.

But use of the car rental tax revenue stream, which the voters authorized exclusively to develop and construct the PEC and the parkland within the district, does not factor into the discussion.  Perhaps this is because the Convention Center Department has illegally absconded with all but a few scraps of the venue revenues for its own operations and maintenance, a use neither authorized by ballot nor raised as a possibility during the formulation and planning of the venue.  Perhaps it is because the complicit City Manager weighed into the plan to perpetuate the unsavory and illegal misdirection of a tax the voters adopted for another purpose.

Philanthropy without a quid pro quo likely will not be forthcoming as long as the City fails to use the voters’ authorized tax monies as directed, to do its share.

TUR seemed to not hear the extreme public sensitivity to turning this precious park over to commercial interests, which has been asserted many times over by public rejection of significant commercial enterprises like restaurants and other major concessions in the park, and which has been heightened by the increasingly commercial nature and size of events at Auditorium Shores.  Moreover, would not allowing PARD to retain park-related revenues within the district for its own use provide incentive for PARD to treat the park as its own revenue-generating enterprise rather than as an open, public amenity?

TUR seemed not to see the public has realized TIFs, which are advertised to generate demand for development (see the Waller Creek Project), cannot create a scrap of this demand but rather only relocate it from one part of the City to another by means of tax dollar subsidy.  By dedicating increased tax revenues within the district to improvements within the district, TIFs allow developers to dedicate their tax revenues to providing their own amenities, robbing the General Fund of revenues that could be used city-wide for more democratically designated needs.

Among the suggested revenue streams, a PID is the only one that would conform to the expressed sensibilities of the community, and then only if the PID’s contributions were a taxing surcharge rather than payment in lieu of other taxes.  This would make sense.  The neighboring commercial and condo developments benefit immensely from the presence of the park, and including them in a tax surcharge zone would allow some of the cost of the park to be recovered from those who are profiting by it.  But the size of such a revenue stream would come nowhere near to fulfilling the need.

Operations

TUR recognized that lack of co-ordination in scheduling has been a major contributor to operational difficulties with events.  Their recommendations with respect to operations are generally sound, though some, like the use of non-commissioned officers for traffic management, would require a change of state law.  The operational recommendations seem to be the ones getting the warmest reception among the concerned City departments.

Conclusions

The URS traffic study showed no negative impact in closing Riverside Drive to through traffic between the PEC and Lee Barton Drive, but concluded without basis that future traffic loads would somehow change this.  TUR Partners then used this bogus conclusion to justify proposing $71 million to partially cover the road and replace an existing garage with a new one underground.  An additional “benefit” of doing so would allow the Long Center to expand further into the parkland of Town Lake Park.  All these findings followed from the unjustified premise that closing Riverside would have negative impact in the distant future.

No development, much less one with so much community benefit, has ever been denied because, despite having no projected impact on existing traffic flow, there was unsubstantiated speculation that there would be negative traffic impact twenty five years in the future.

TUR Partners recommended relocation of the DAC between the Long Center and PEC.  This deserves serious consideration, though questions of finance and co-located uses could be barriers.  Re-use of the current DAC site, particularly for commercial enterprises, will be problematic, but a parking option might be considered if it frees the current parking lot site north the DAC for green space development.

TUR’s recommendations for financing improvements neglected the most obvious one, the car rental tax for the venue project that voters created specifically for this purpose.  Other options have questionable legal standing (GO bonds), high uncertainty (philanthropy), risk of privatizing a critical piece of public property (public-private partnerships), and dubious tax policy (TIF).

TUR recognized long-standing operational issues that have been poorly addressed heretofore and made sensible recommendations that the City seems poised to enact if possible.

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City Manager’s Scheme To Shirk Funding Auditorium Shores

City Hall is eagerly embracing the notion that $3.5 million of funding from C3 Productions will take care of renovating the Auditorium Shores portion of Town Lake Park.  Council is letting C3 take them off the hook for having failed on the Town Lake Park Venue Project, for which voters authorized car rental tax funding to create a centerpiece park between Barton Springs Road and the lake alongside Auditorium Shores.  Taxpayers have already paid for the completion of the park, yet the park is not even half finished. The reason: Council allowed the City Manager to illegally redirect the venue tax revenues from park construction to Convention Center Department operations and maintenance.  Never authorized by voters and never discussed publicly in the hundreds of hours of public meetings over the project, the redirection of funding has been thoroughly documented in Whatever Happened To Town Lake Park.

When the issue was brought to light in the media in 2009, then-Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza quickly pledged $5 of funding to supposedly finish the park (though the City is around $20 million short of the park development funding promised in the Council-adopted 1999 financial plan for the venue project.)  Yet virtually none of that pledge has been spent on the park, and in the meantime the acceleration of construction costs has greatly eroded the purchasing power it would have had brought if the City had been sincere about proceeding.  Nor was the $7 million quickly authorized by the City’s Financial Director in 2007 when the fiscal misdeeds were brought to Council by concerned citizens.  (The Convention Center Department spent that $7M almost as fast as it appeared.)

From the very beginning, the venue project was understood to include Auditorium Shores.  The Council-adopted Master Plan for the venue project includes two phases of the venue project plan consisted of revitalizing western and eastern Auditorium Shores as part of the great new park.  Assistant City Manager Jim Smith’s 1999 financial plan for the project, also adopted by Council, made the commitment to fund these phases from car rental tax revenues fully explicit.  $11.1 million (in 1999 dollars) was committed to latter phases of the park project, to be spent by 2007 primarily on Auditorium Shores.  None of that ever happened.

A recent letter signed by many of the original principals in the venue project reaffirms that the venue’s car rental tax revenue was to be used to fund the complete remaking of Auditorium Shores under a Master Plan and financial plan adopted by Council, and that at no time in the intensely participatory early years of the project was there ever a public word suggesting otherwise or that the car rental tax would fund Convention Center operations and maintenance.  The assumption throughout the formative years of the project was that the bed tax would be used as it had been historically to underwrite Palmer Auditorium.  But as Auditorium Shores has continued to deteriorate into its current sorry condition, a galling scheme concocted by the City Manager is preventing any of the venue funding to be spent on Auditorium Shores.

While with one hand Rudy Garza was attempting to quell controversy with his very public (though insufficient) $5 million offer, with the other hand he was insisting without any precedent whatsoever that the venue project did not include Auditorium Shores, and therefore no venue funding could be used there.   Garza’s revisionist position is laid out in a series of memos to the Mayor in 2011, when Council was intending to formally confirm that the boundaries of the project included all of Auditorium Shores.  He characterized this Council affirmation of the foundations of the project as “expanding the venue boundaries”.  Then he went on to insist that the venue project extended only as far north as the alignment of Riverside Drive and as far west as the former alignment of Dawson Drive, both notions being complete fabrications with no foundation in historical fact.  He recruited the Law Department to this position, in a move underscoring the fundamental conflict of interest in having the Law Department under the direction of the City Manager rather than the City Council.

The fact is, Garza’s position neglected the widespread public understanding and the explicit earlier City Management and Council commitments to spending venue funds there.  It also implied a direct violation of state law by the City.  The Texas Municipal Code specifies that revenues dedicated to a venue project may only be spent within the physical boundaries of the venue project.  Garza ignored the fact that significant venue funds had ALREADY been spent on Auditorium Shores, both on master planning and on the construction of a pump station on the shores that was sized to supply water to the Shores as well as Butler Park.  Furthermore, significant venue funds had been expended in the construction of the western portion of Butler Park, which lay outside his fabricated boundary.  If his restricted boundaries were really the case, then the City had repeatedly violated state law by spending outside the venue, thus calling into question the legality of the venue itself.  Better for the City to violate the law, defy the public, and forget about its signature park than to concede the car rental tax could be used as intended rather than as slush funding for Convention Center operations.

Bob Hodge, the originator of the back room scam by which venue funding was directed to Convention Center operations, has moved on, under threat of indictment over actions related to the performance reviews used to justify the payment of personal bonuses from venue-generated funds.  Garza has moved on, too, his transition to private contractor under cloud of ethical complaints related to fiscal decisions he made on his way out the door and issues related to his transition to the private sector.

But City Manager Marc Ott has bought fully into Garza’s lies about the venue project.  Ott has suppressed a staff report supporting the case that Auditorium Shores is part of the venue project and thus eligible for its funding, neither allowing its release under Open Records request nor even admitting its existence.  He has adopted the notion that funding designated by public ballot for “development” means “operations”, an interpretation of the English language unique to this project.  He did not originate the lies, but now he owns them.

City Council is just as culpable.  Despite repeated pressure to do so, Council has refused to act to establish formal boundaries for the project as the law requires, and yet confusion over this easily resolvable issues is cited as a reason for the project to have ground to a halt.  The boundary issue and the funding misdirections have been presented to every City Council office repeatedly and in detail since 2003.  They well know the wrongs that have been committed in the City’s venue project, but never have they had the spine to stand up to the City Manager to correct them.

City Council is therefore as complicit in the derailment of our new central park as the corrupt Convention Center Department management who put the bait and switch funding scheme in place and the two generations of City Management who have intransigiently resisted resolution or any significant progress on the park development.

Larry Akers — Stakeholder Representative, Town Lake Park Community Events Center Venue Project

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Town Lake Park Stakeholders Set the Record Straight

Town Lake Park Stakeholders Set the Record Straight

Former Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza and CM Marc Ott have tried to rewrite the terms of the Town Lake Park Community Events Center Venue Project to remove Auditorium Shores from the project and continue redirecting its funding to Convention Center operations. In this letter, originators of the project including official stakeholder representatives, remind the City what really happened. They include:
Larry Akers — Friends of the Parks of Austin
Mariben Ramsey — Junior League of Austin
Ellen Johnson, Kaye Trybus — South Austin Coalition of Neighborhoods
Robert Holland — Project Manager, City of Austin
Jeff Jack — Austin Neighborhoods Council

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Reflections on 2012 Bond Election Part II — Waller Creek Project

In a previous note, I discussed how the City redirected public
authorization for the construction of Town Lake Park.  With the
Waller Creek Project again on the bond ballot, we should reflect
on its history, too.

Support for the Waller Creek Tunnel Project was first solicited from
parks advocates with a vision of how it would revitalize the park
corridor along the creek.  Recreational improvements were packaged
with the civil engineering work to gain public support early in the
game.  Yet when the package was refined in 1998 for presentation to
voters as a $25 million project, all recreational amenities were
removed from the deal.
 
We now know that $25 million commitment was just to get voters’
buy-in, so officials could then stretch every financial limit to
upsize the project.  The actual cost of the tunnel construction alone
has ballooned to $147 million, an overrun comparable in Austin history
only to the South Texas Nuclear Project.  (In defense, Mayor
Leffingwell shrugs this off to inflation, but CPI inflation applied to
$25M in 1998 amounts to only $35.334M today.)

The City’s tax increment financing district has proven to be
hopelessly inadequate to finance the project.  Travis County is now
footing part of the bill.  To a greater extent, the cost has been
foisted onto all Austin taxpayers through a drainage fee surcharge, to
the tune of an additional $55 million.
(http://www.statesman.com/news/news/local/seeking-funding-for-waller-creek-tunnel-city-tur-1/nRXgw/)
This added tax alone is more than twice what the voters originally
authorized.  And surface amenities along the greenbelt are still not
included.
 
The upcoming bond authorization is for $13 million of surface improvements,
but that is only the beginning.  Staff is promising another $17 million
can be provided from existing and future resources (at what cost to
other needed programs?).  
http://www.statesman.com/news/news/local/with-tunnel-under-way-talk-turns-to-expensive-wall/nRNcx/

Those two chunks, as large as they are, will only fund half of the
anticipated total for landscaping.  The surface amenities alone are
projected to cost $60 million.  Recently submitted design concepts
solicited at a cost of $800,000 (half funded by the City) look as if
build-out could easily exceed that cost.

And for what?  The net effect of the project is to convert substandard
private property, acquired by developers at a depressed price because
of flood plain issues, into a gloriously appointed setting for their
high-dollar developments.  The public rehabilitates their land,
provides an ultra-chic setting, and then receives what benefit?
Not the benefit of the developments’ higher property taxes — those are
constrained to fund a modest portion of the City’s cost to enable
their existence.

The public increment financing approach does not even generate
economic development in the City.  PID financing never does.  These
offices, condos, hotels, and clubs, if they are ever built, do not
magically create new demand.  They only fill a demand that would have
been filled elsewhere in the City if the improvement district did not
exist.  The difference is that if the development had occurred
elsewhere, the City would reap the taxes that would benefit the
whole community rather than using all those revenues, and much
more, to to enable the PID developments.

The public made the overwhelming majority investment in all the Waller
Creek property, but the profits will go to City Hall insiders.  The
Waller project is giving developers Perry Lorenz and Robert Knight,
among others, an outlandish rate of return for their years of
political donations, cultivating and culminating in a City Council and
staff amenable to their land enhancement/development plans.  Let’s not
forget how they tried to sell a portion of their property to the the
Convention Center Department for five times its appraised value.
http://www.statesman.com/news/news/local/downtown-land-deal-scrapped-after-council-members-/nRs6R/
(Funny how that Convention Center Department keeps popping into these
deals.)

Surely we cannot leave the Waller landscape as a construction ruin.
Let the developers who are benefitting from $147 million of taxpayer
largesse pay for the landscaping their half-finished project left behind.

In the project’s scale and opulence, we have another instance City’s
Taj Mahal mentality whenever downtown is part of the discussion.
Consider the $120M library, the Great Streets Plan, the gilding of
Sixth Street, the Sabine Street promenade, the Second Street district,
etc., all to be funded from the public trough.  All this while library
hours and swimming pool hours are remain cut across the city.  The
Parks Department is begging for support for its deteriorating,
underfunded parks by offering naming rights to donors for underwriting
basic park maintenance.  Property tax bills are so onerous in the
Central City that residents are forced to rent out their own
residences to partying, transient visitors.  (But finish Town Lake
Park at Auditorium Shores/Butler, even though voters have already paid
the $20 million to do it?  No way!  Not if it means stepping on the
City Manager’s toes.)

In looking at the larger context of the bond ballot, why does the City
claim that the bond proposal will not result in any increase in
property taxes?  What is the baseline?  The City does not say that
taxes would be reduced if, for once, we paid off our outstanding debts
without incurring new ones.  Why does the City not explain what the
tax load would be with versus without the new bond program?

And are property taxes the only impact?  Will we be subjected again
to additional fees as a result of overruns in the planned projects,
as we have been with the Waller Creek Tunnel?  If that project is any
indication, the bond authorization is only the down payment.  The
Waller Creek landscaping points clearly to more of the same.

The City’s treatment of the Town Lake Park Community Events Center
Venue Project and the Waller Creek Tunnel project are not the kind
of standard bureaucratic mishaps that occur around the fringes of
expensive public works projects.  They are collossal fiscal abuses of
voter bond approvals consciously and covertly manipulated to exploit tax
resources for political and personal monetary gain.

So should the City be trusted with another round of bond funding?
Should we risk rewarding the public’s good faith with another round
of fiscal misdirection and redirection?

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Reflections on 2012 Bond Election, Part I — Town Lake Park

A central question in the City’s bond election is whether the public can
trust the City to deliver on what is proposed, once the taxpayers have
obligated and paid their money.

If Town Lake Park or the Waller Creek Tunnel are any indication, the
answer is no.

Here I will talk about Town Lake Park, and in a subsequent message about
Waller Creek.

In 1998 voters authorized a new tax on rental cars to fund the construction
of the Palmer Events Center (PEC), its parking garage, and a redeveloped park
from Barton Springs Road to the shores of Lady Bird Lake, between South
First Street and Lamar.  The PEC was built, though at a $6.8M cost overrun
that was funded from redirected park construction funds.  Five years behind
schedule, Butler Park was finally developed, though only partially because
City-imposed delays resulted in a loss of approximately $4 million in
added construction costs and rejected donations.  Butler is still unfinished,
its Children’s Garden south of the Liz Carpenter Fountain suspended because
the City Manager has been unwilling to release funding for its finished
design and construction.

That $4M delay was imposed because of a secret deal that was never
disclosed to the public, or even raised to the attention of City
Council members until over two years after the fact.  Staff devised
PEC bond covenants in which a spending waterfall for car rental tax
receipts allowed funding of park construction only after several PEC
operating accounts, including annual operations and maintenance, were
funded.  Voters never authorized use of the car tax for PEC
operations, and no public discussion of this use ever occurred.  The
public had long understood that the underwriting of events center
operations would come from bed tax funds, as they had for the old
Palmer Auditorium, not from the car rental tax.  This aspect of the
bond covenants was not raised for discussion by staff in presentation
to the Council, which adopted the ruse in 1999 with no hearing and no
discussion from the dias.

Not only was Butler deeply harmed, but the Auditorium Shores portion of
the project, which was to have consumed over half of the City’s original
pledge to the project, has never even started, having been removed from
the venue project’s financial plan for lack of foreseeable funding.

Meanwhile, the same year the car rental tax started flowing, the
Convention Center Department, flush with their windfall from not
having to fund PEC operations from the bed tax, had so much cash on
hand that they began passing it out to employees in what they called
a “Gainsharing Bonus Program”.  Founded as a reward for those same
performance measures that were falsified by former Convention Center
Director Bob Hodge, the program is still in place and has disbursed
over $5 million in excess revenue to employees.  No employees have
benefitted more than the scheme’s original creators, since for many
years the bonuses were proportional to base pay and therefore weighted
to top management.  Despite these sordid origins having been exposed to
Council, the program continues to grow year after year, siphoning what
voters authorized as Auditorium Shores enhancement funds to line the
pockets of Convention Center employees.  No other City department,
enterprise or otherwise, has such a bonus program.

Every time park advocates raise these issues to the highest levels at
City Hall, offers of park funding magically appear: $7 million in 2007 and
$5 million in Spring 2011.  But the City stonewalls actual progress
on the project until, when the heat is off, the money vanishes again.
PARD unaccountably delayed in 2008-09 until the Convention Center
Department spent the $7 million on its operations, in the meantime
missing the best construction climate opportunity for low-cost building
and economic stimulus since the 2002-2005 delay.  The current offering
is on high center while the City Manager tries to wiggle out of spending
any venue money on Auditorium Shores.

This last issue is particularly galling.  From the very beginning, the
venue project was understood to include Auditorium Shores.  Assistant
City Manager Jim Smith’s 1999 financial plan for the project made this
explicit.  But while with one hand his replacement Rudy Garza was
attempting to quell controversy with his very public and grossly
inadequate $5 million offer, with the other hand he was insisting
without any precedent whatsoever that the venue project did not
include Auditorium Shores or even the western portion of Butler Park.
He recruited the Law Department, which is under direction of the City
Manager, for support.  By Garza’s formulation, none of the $5 million
could be spent on Auditorium Shores, citing the state law requirement
that venue revenues can be spent only within the physical bounds of
the venue.  This neglected the widespread public understanding and the
explicit Jim Smith commitment to spending venue funds there.  It also
neglected the fact that significant venue funds had ALREADY been spent
on Auditorium Shores, both on master planning and on the construction
of a pump station on the shores that was sized to supply water to the
shores, and in the construction of the western portion of Butler Park.
If his restricted boundaries were really the case, then the City had
repeatedly violated state law by spending outside the venue, thus
calling into question the legality of the venue.

Despite repeated pressure to do so, City Council has refused to act to
establish formal boundaries for the project as the law requires, and
yet confusion over this easily resolvable issues is cited as a reason
for the project to have ground to a halt.

This boundary issue and the funding misdirections have been presented
to every City Council office repeatedly and in detail since 2003.
City Council is therefore as complicit in the derailment of our new
central park as the corrupt Convention Center Department management
who put the bait and switch funding scheme in place and the two
generations of City Management who have intransigiently resisted
resolution or any significant progress on the park development.

So should they be trusted with another dip into taxpayer pockets?

For more details and background documents, see:

https://austinfriendsoftheparks.wordpress.com/2011/05/16/whatever-happened-to-town-lake-park-updated-2/

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Understanding the Austin Transportation Department’s West Riverside Drive Traffic Analysis

Understanding the Austin Transportation Department’s

West Riverside Drive Traffic Analysis

by Larry Akers

Friends of the Parks of Austin Stakeholder Representative

Town Lake Park Community Project

Executive Summary

Accept the findings. Reject the conclusion.

In their West Riverside Drive Traffic Analysis, which considers the impact of closing a portion of Riverside Drive in Town Lake Park between Butler Park and Auditorium Shores, the City of Austin Traffic Department (TD) would have you believe their analysis of the impact of closing a short section of Riverside Drive in the heart of Town Lake Park would have a seriously negative effect on traffic flow. Yet underneath the obfuscation in the presentation of their report, their analysis shows the closure would induce VIRTUALLY NO NOTICEABLE DELAY in the commuting system. This is made clear simply by dividing the ominous “vehicle hours of delay” by the number of vehicles involved. This data is presented below, and it correlates excellently with analysis in previous traffic studies.

Moreover, in its corridor discussion, the report misrepresents east-west delays by not attributing increased net delay to the increased net traffic through those corridors. The findings show be no increased per-car delay.

Furthermore, the data in the report suggests the possibility of scenarios that may be even more favorable to closure than the ones analyzed.

The report has a serious case of confirmation bias. Even before TD did any analysis they took the position that closing Riverside would be adverse to transportation needs in the area. This pre-conception is embedded throughout their report, where its phrasing is tilted toward supporting the department’s predetermined conclusion that Riverside should not be closed to commuters. This conclusion was expressed prior to conducting any analysis in a July, 2011 memo (see appendix) stating that the roadway should be retained for commuters. However, a detailed examination shows that this conclusion is not supported by the data and findings of the study. Moreover, the report presents numerous outright falsehoods and dubious claims to frame the discussion. Some of these are discussed below.

The TD report also misstates Council direction and fails to perform the demanded analysis of well-known measures (see appendix) proposed to mitigate the absorption of Riverside traffic into the rest of the grid. New capacity can be readily developed, contrary to the report’s assertion.

Finally, the report pursues a specific value-based judgment that should not be the role of an engineering study, and in so doing it completely ignores the community values that weigh in favor of closing this small section of roadway in the middle of our new central park.

Interpreting the Scenarios

One troubling aspect of the study is the assumption that the traffic displaced by Riverside closure would be evenly redistributed between Chavez and Barton Springs. Yet Scenario 2 (60% Chavez/40% Barton Springs) yielded very significantly less delay than the 50/50 split. Statistically, drivers adjust rationally over time toward the optimal, so of the three scenarios, the 60/40 is most inevitable. However, that being the case, it should have been chosen as the central redistribution assumption and given the same kind of sensitivity variance as the 50/50 split. What would the study show, then, for a 70/30 distribution? That would be a much more reasonable and valuable assessment than the highly unlikely 40/60 scenario, which the presentation uses to skew the overall picture.

Considering the inevitability of drivers adjusting to the more optimal traffic pattern, there is no point in evaluating any scenario other than Scenario 2, 60% Chavez/40% Barton Springs. The others are simply unrealistic. That is where we shall proceed from here.

Viewing the Results in Understandable Terms

The presentation of delay factors in terms of total vehicle hours is a way of disguising the impact on drivers. The important measure is delay per vehicle trip. Traffic volumes in some cases are given in the report, while others have been presented to project stakeholders in a separate document. Applying this traffic data, the conversions of total intersection delay to delay per vehicle are simple and informative. Without having precise data on all the intersections in question, aggregating the data is one way to expose the real impact to drivers.

According to the study, traffic volumes across the bridges during peak hours are as follows:

Cross-River Traffic Volume

  • Lamar — AM-2931 PM-3825
  • S. First — AM-2644 PM-3618
  • Total — AM-5575 PM-7443

We can believe each number in these counts represents a unique vehicle, as double crossings are unlikely and in any case would constitute separate trips. These numbers do not include traffic entering the grid and traversing east-west without crossing the river, so the actual aggregate flow through the grid is significantly higher than the cross-river volumes.

Nevertheless if we apply these numbers to the delay hours to calculate average delay per vehicle trip, the impact of closure is much clearer:

Aggregate Delay

AM (min. 5575 vehicles)

  • Scenario 1 — 4.1 vehicle hrs
  • Scenario 2 (likely) — 1.5 vehicle hrs
  • Scenario 3 (unlikely) — 7.2 vehicle hrs

PM (min. 7443 vehicles)

  • Scenario 1 14.0 vehicle hrs
  • Scenario 2 (likely) -0.3 vehicle hrs
  • Scenario 3 (unlikely) 33.9 vehicle hrs

Dividing these aggregate delays by the number of vehicles gives:

Delay per Vehicle(seconds)

AM (min. 5575 vehicles)

  • Scenario 1 — 2.6 seconds
  • Scenario 2 (likely) — .96 second
  • Scenario 3 (unlikely) — 4.6 seconds

PM (min. 7443 vehicles)

  • Scenario 1 — 6.8 seconds
  • Scenario 2 (likely) — -.15 second
  • Scenario 3 (unlikely) — 16.4 seconds

Under Scenario 2, the most likely, additional morning delay induced by Riverside closure is less than one second per trip, and afternoon performance actually improves slightly.

Thus there is NO significant induced delay, even averaging over only a portion of the vehicle trips.

Additional traffic count data, taken from a somewhat more comprehensive summary presented to project stakeholders (Appendix 2), gives the following numbers for east-west peak traffic volumes.

East-West Corridor Traffic Volumes

  • Barton Springs AM-1650 PM-1902
  • Cesar Chavez AM 2226 PM-2357

Adding these east-west corridor volumes into the delay computation reduces the computed average delay per vehicle.

Delay per Vehicle (seconds)

AM (max. 10023 vehicles)

  • Scenario 1 1.5 seconds
  • Scenario 2 (likely) .5 second
  • Scenario 3 (unlikely) 2.6 seconds

PM (max. 12030 vehicles)

  • Scenario 1 4.2 seconds
  • Scenario 2 (likely) -.1 seconds
  • Scenario 3 (unlikely) 10.1 seconds

Given that the number of river crossings establishes a lower bound for the number of vehicle trips, and adding in the east-west corridor numbers nears an upper bound (though the upper bound would be reached only by adding cars traversing Riverside). The average delay per vehicle will lie in the range between the two tables.

The Traffic Department’s presentation of vehicle hours hides the fact that the model shows virtually no perceivable aggregate intersection delay induced by the closure of the road at these intersections.

What, then, of the corridor delays presented in the study? The north-south corridors (South First Street and South Lamar), and their result is as might be intuited. Under Scenario 2, the S. First Street corridor AM peak delay, measured only against vehicles crossing the river, is 4.8 seconds, and Lamar improves by 2.5 seconds, essentially offsetting the induced delay. At PM peak, the South First delay is 12.9 seconds per vehicle, while Lamar improves by 12.3 seconds. Again these numbers essentially offset each other.

But what about those scary east-west corridor numbers? The problem is they are completely misleading. Yes, the cumulative delay times through the intersections in those corridors increase a bit. But that is because those corridors have absorbed all the traffic formerly travelling through the Riverside corridor, including all the delay time experienced by those vehicles. There is no evidence in the report that the per-car delay through the east-west corridors has increased. The selective highlighting of the increased net delay, while not stating that this delay is attributable to the additional vehicles, creates a bogus impression that the level of service has deteriorated. This is plainly dishonest. Indeed, the total east-west delays displayed in the base modeling data from Tables 2 and 3 indicate no net increase in east-west delay within the system.

The Traffic Department wished only to justify their predetermined conclusion that closure of Riverside would induce unacceptable delay for commuters. But since two of the most troublesome intersections are made more efficient, travel time is maintained at virtually current levels, according to this modeling. Having this analytical finding, the authors of the report attempted to disguise it by presenting the numbers in a format whose abstraction (total vehicle hours of delay) hid the reality, and then went further, hiding a portion of the corridor travel times from the presentation of east-west corridor analysis.

The reality of their finding is VIRTUALLY NO INDUCED DELAY, only a slight shifting of delay between intersections and corridors.

Comparison with Other Studies

Except for TD’s conclusions and manner of presentation, the technical results of this study appear to be analytically satisfactory. They correlate very closely with previous, broader studies of the same area. The Traffic Impact Analysis performed by WHM Associates for the 1999 Master Plan indicated closing Riverside Drive would induce only a six second delay to a morning commute and a seven second delay in the evening. That modeling was based on westbound traffic volume of 1200 vehicles per hour on Riverside at PM peak hour. The current volume is 526 vehicles in the evening peak. One would expect those minor induced delays to have fallen, since the actual volume of Riverside traffic needing to be absorbed has fallen by over half relative to the study. The WHM report also forecast slightly improved service in the Lamar corridor and slightly worse service along South First, which correlates with the TD report’s finding.

Moreover, the DAMP study from 2002, which used even higher traffic projections, found that eliminating all eastbound flow on Riverside would streamline the commuting grid, a finding that is reinforced in the Transportation Department study.

False and Dubious Claims in the Presentation

In an attempt to slant the presentation toward its predetermined conclusion, the report makes a number of misleading statements and includes some outright falsehoods.

It begins in the cover letter: “The Austin City Council directed staff to maintain West Riverside Drive until alternative capacity could be identified in either the Barton Springs Road or Cesar Chavez corridors.” Not really. The direction in Council Resolution 020215-66C was “Continue to develop alternatives that would make viable the removal of Riverside Drive as an at-grade roadway through Town Lake Park. (Riverside Drive shall not be permanently closed through the Park until such time as alternatives are implemented to mitigate Riverside Drive’s lost traffic capacity.)” Alternatives were not explored in TD’s study, even though they were known to the department. Mitigation, which could be partial, was the goal of the Council resolution, not necessarily complete replacement of capacity.

The study states, “no other capacity options have been identified over the years.” Completely false. Options suggested and well known to both City Council and the Transportation Department include creating a reversible lane on Drake Bridge, a double left-turn option from Drake Bridge onto westbound Cesar Chavez, and a lengthy list (see Appendix 3) of other options drawn up by the same Transportation Department staff for study as mitigation measures.

Other TD Study statements are as follows:

“Delays generated during peak hours .. are likely replicated throughout the day.” That is hogwash. When streets are not clogged with peak hour traffic, delay is induced only by traffic signals, which are governed by the engineers. As there is virtually no induced delay anyway, the argument becomes moot.

“W. Riverside Drive serves as a primary access route to the entertainment assets such as the PEC, Long and Auditorium Shores”. This is true only for westbound entrance from S. First, which would not be affected by closure. Eastbound approach via Riverside from Lamar is impossible for southbound traffic coming off the Lamar Bridge. Approaches from the south and west are shorter and easier via Barton Springs. There is no reason to use Riverside for access to events.

A “closed Riverside Drive would not be preferable from an emergency response basis”. False. The assumption behind this statement is lack of a paved surface, but retaining a paved surface has been a part of all informed discussions on the Riverside closure for some time. Retaining a drivable hardscape surface between the east and west terminii of Riverside would serve two purposes: 1) emergency vehicle access, and 2) provision for a festival plaza that could host special events now conducted on (and shutting down) downtown streets. Providing this venue would vastly improve access to downtown during these events. Regarding emergency access in particular, it might be improved, since there would be no traffic impediment to the entry and passage of emergency vehicles. There would be no need for the “circuitous routing for emergency responders” cited in the TD report.

Guests departing Long Center events cause “traffic impacts to Barton Hills”. False. At that hour, there is no noticeable impact on access to Barton Hills or, for that matter, the Zilker neighborhood.

“The ceremonial entrance to the PEC is underutilized because of the current design of the circular drive.” False. The current entrance is underutilized not because of the design of Riverside and the driveway, but because the PEC usually locks to north doors to control access. There is nothing wrong with the driveway access.

An alternative design of a retained roadway would allow “improved access to critical parking infrastructure on .. the west end of the park”. False. What critical parking infrastructure? There are only two small surface lots. These are adequately served via a Lamar entrance. Closing the road would actually allow for more parking by allowing adaptive re-use of its right-of-way. Otherwise more parking could be provided only by consuming very precious parkland.

Retaining the road would allow “Improved loading and unloading of events at area venues.” A dubious claim. Long Center and PEC loading is from their joint service yard, a “Cadillac facility” (according to Convention Center Department Director Mark Tester) that is easily reachable from Barton Springs Road. Improved access to the Auditorium Shores performance area as envisioned by the trail head and Auditorium Shores improvements by TBG will not involve the closure section, but will be improved rather by renovations on the site that are now in progress.

Retaining the road would allow “a pedestrian zone that is consistent with the park concept and activities currently and planned at the park”. False. The park was shrunk by the placement of the PEC, in what was to be green space, to accommodate the PEC/Long Center service yard. Using the Riverside ROW for park features to compensate for this loss was understood by the hundreds of Master Plan participants as critical to the success of the park. A core original design guideline was to eliminate vehicular impact on the heart of the park. A commuter road through the heart of the park is the very antithesis of that goal. Commuters passing through a heavy pedestrian zone at the daily period of peak park use is directly contradictory to the park concept and is a danger to all park users, but particularly children.

Interpreting the Evaluation — Positive Directions

What kind of credibility can the conclusion of a report have if its presentation is so biased, obfuscated, and false?

But putting it conclusion aside, the report points the way for solutions that would take the closure of the street from painless to a boon to commuters and possibly help resolve venue access and parking problems.

The report suggests that optimal post-closure performance would occur if a majority of Riverside traffic redirected itself toward Cesar Chavez. It would follow that making that route even more attractive would improve conditions further. A reversible lane on Drake Bridge, an idea that has been endorsed by RECA and the Downtown Austin Alliance, among others, would create extra capacity along the South First/Chavez route, particularly if it included a double left turn onto westbound Chavez.

To the extent that traffic delays may occur at the intersection of Barton Springs Road and South Lamar, there is one particularly easy way to provide new capacity. That intersection is designed for high capacity and functions well. But a bottleneck exists at the railroad and Bouldin Creek bridges on Barton Springs Road that prevents westbound traffic from readily reaching the intersection and blocks vehicles desiring to turn left onto Lamar from reaching the double turning bays. A two-way left turn lane currently exists on Barton Springs from just east of South Lamar to Dawson. The only portion of this lane that is used is a short section providing left turns into the park and Daugherty Arts Center parking lots. The remainder of this lane could be converted to a westbound traffic lane, relieving the bottleneck and signficantly increasing capacity through the area. Despite a statement to the contrary in the TD report, the Traffic Department is aware of this mitigation step.

The report does mention reconfiguration of the Barton Springs/ Riverside/South First triangle, a complex notion developed by Transportation Department engineers, and one which was on the list of measures to be modeled, but which has not been analytically modeled to date. The triangle treatment could potentially reduce travel times and alleviate congestion in the South First and Barton Springs Road corridors.

Venue Access

The physical issues of access to the Long Center, PEC, and Auditorium Shores events were well studied and addressed in the venue master plan, and the operational problems those venues have encountered result almost exclusively from the failure to coordinate schedules among the venues.

The Long Center gained a great deal in the agreement it and its constituent groups negotiated in the Town Lake Park Venue Project Master Plan — a superb service yard, resulting the consumption of much of the heart of the Butler Park site by the PEC, in exchange for the closure of a short section of Riverside Drive to recover and maintain the safety, integrity, and critical mass of the park. All the Long Center lost in the agreement was westbound egress from one end of its parking garage, the end that was designed to serve South First access. That is a loss they should accept in exchange for value requested and received. Their operational concerns can and should be addressed, but not at the cost of abandoning an existentially critical aspect of Town Lake Park.

Conclusions

Despite the hidden data, questionable assumptions, false statements, and erroneous conclusions TD report places on its findings, the study does illustrate once again that Riverside Drive can be closed without significant impact on the commuting grid.

The study fails to address Council direction to model the extent to which some modest mitigation measures can increase the capacity of the area grid. The effectiveness of these measures is yet to be modeled, and should be, as they may more than compensate for any assumed delay induced by the proposed Riverside closure.

As for the induced delays, even those projected under the more unrealistic scenarios are well within the range of tolerance that was established with the adoption of some of the Great Streets projects downtown. The mentality exists that for significant enhancements in the quality, livability, and safety of the central city environment, some tradeoff against commuting efficiency is acceptable. Why is that consideration not applied in this case?

For our premier urban park, the tradeoffs are so small, and the benefit so great (park design, amenity, safety, and quality, remediation of downtown congestion by providing an alternative venue for street festivals, and public faith in the execution of negotiated agreements and master plans), that any recommendation other than closure is completely inconsistent with traffic decisions made north of the river and are out of character with the city we all envision.

After ten years of refusal by the Traffic Department to provide the analysis directed by Council resolution, we now have another report that shows the commuting delays induced by the closure of Riveside Drive would be neglible. We still have no study of the well-known suggestions for improving traffic flow in the area of the park. The Transportation Department has shown itself unwilling to conduct this study and unwilling to present findings in an unbiased manner and without drawing predetermined, unsupported conclusions.

The TD report provides renewed confidence that Riverside closure will not noticably delay commuters, but completing the refinement of the park’s Master Plan with confidence still requires an impartial second look at mitigation measures, parking, and venue access issues. For professional, objective, and impartial analysis, we must turn to an independent and unbiased professional traffic and parking engineering consultant. Park planners and City Council must understand all these related issues to support prudent decisions on Riverside and the future of our possibly great urban park.

—————————————————————————

Appendix 1: Rob Spillar Memo, July 6, 2011

July 6, 2011 Memo from Director Rob Spillar regarding Riverside Drive

Excerpt: “My perspective is that the capacity provided by Riverside is vitally important to the overall network both north and south of the river.” It continues in the mode of considering closing the road only for special events, but retaining it for commuting.

Appendix 2: 2011 Traffic Count Summary

City of Austin Traffic Count History Near Town Lake Park

Appendix 3: Suggested Mitigation Measures

Reversible lane proposed in the “Near Term CBD Transportation Improvement Projects” circa 2002 and supported by RECA, among others. Summarized in:

Austin Chronicle Summary of Near Term CBD Transportation Improvement Projects

Gordon Derr (City of Austin Traffic Engineer) Mitigation Memo

linked also from

Riverside Drive and Town Lake Park

Text version here:

Development of Mitigation Measures for Riverside Closure

This list of projects anticipates the use of a less sophisticated traffic simulation to allow a number of runs to be made quickly, with a goal of selected a “best” solution, that would then be modeling using CORSIM. The background will be the traffic for 2005 as per the DAMP model process. The mitigation measures will be in addition to those contained in the TPSD Staff recommendation contained in the Near Term Transportation Project list.

After review of the previous modeling work, the three critical areas for the evening peak hour are Barton Springs westbound at Lamar Boulevard, Cesar Chavez westbound from San Antonio to west of B. R. Reynolds and crossing South First Street.

Barton Springs westbound at Lamar Boulevard 1) Use the continuous left turn lane as a trap lane feeding the left turn bays at Lamar. This would begin just past Dawson. 2) Assume there is a third westbound lane on the north side of the street, which will be a trap lane feeding the right onto Lamar or allow traffic to use Lee Barton down to Riverside.

Crossing South First Street 1) At the intersection of Barton Springs and Riverside, assume that the left turns from westbound Riverside are prohibited. At South First, assume Riverside westbound has dual left turn lanes. 2) In the blocks between South First and where Riverside and Barton Springs cross, assume that Riverside is one way westbound and Barton Springs is one-way eastbound.

Cesar Chavez westbound from San Antonio to west of B. R. Reynolds 1) Assume that all of the signalized intersections use called pedestrian phases, therefore the regular phase for the side street would not need to be long enough for a pedestrian to cross the street. 2) Try restricting left turns from Cesar Chavez to B. R. Reynolds in the evening peak hour. Assume that traffic uses 5th Street to get to Lamar. 3) Try contra-flow lane on Cesar Chavez westbound from Lavaca to San Antonio. Cesar Chavez would then have 3 EB and 1 WB lanes in that section. <>

Reallocation of traffic using Riverside now: Although we can start with an assumption that half the traffic will use Barton Springs and half will go north of the river to Cesar Chavez. The final allocation should use the travel time from Riverside and Congress to Cesar Chavez west of B. R. Reynolds to rationalize the split. Is that possible? If not, how would you suggest we make the split?

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Riverside Drive and Town Lake Park

Riverside Drive and Town Lake Park

The Undoing of a Remarkable Compromise

or

How 7 Seconds of Commute Time Is Worth More Than a Great Park And The Lives of People Who Go There

by Larry Akers

Friends of the Parks of Austin Stakeholder Representative

Town Lake Park Community Project

Introduction

Since the lands now known as Auditorium Shores and Butler Park were first conceived as parkland, the presence of Riverside Drive as a commuter roadway separating the two tracts has confounded any attempt to create a unified central park as the centerpiece of the Lady Bird Lake Corridor. The central design decision of the Town Lake Park Master Plan and the associated Community Events Center Venue Project was and remains the fate of the section of Riverside Drive between Butler Park and Auditorium Shores. That the road remains open and remains an issue 13 years after the Town Lake Park Master Plan called for its elimination is a case study of the political machinery of the City, both its public processes and its shadowy inner workings. The history of this indecision involves difficult, conscientiously negotiated compromises upset by after-the-fact double dealing, insubordinate resistance of City staff to directives from both City Council and a City Manager, and a municipal paralysis resulting from dueling perspectives on quality of life. That lives are likely at stake is a point that gets too frequently neglected.

This essay covers the history of the Riverside Drive question, the motivation for closure, and the processes engaged to resolve the issue from the mid-1980’s to the present. The executive summary contains links to sections detailing the summary’s major points, and the individual sections contain links to original source material. This background should help inform the process we engage again at the beginning of 2012 to again face the question of how to deal with the roadway that splits our centerpiece central park on Lady Bird Lake.

Executive Summary

Removal of Riverside Drive in the middle of Town Lake Park
has been City policy
since the late 1980’s, motivated by a concern for pedestrian safety within the park and the need to reclaim its right of way to form the contiguous green space necessary for a viable great park. When the Town Lake Park Community Events Center Venue Project was launched with a public vote in 1998, elimination of roads within the park was a primary goal of the project’s stakeholders. The fundamental negotiated agreement in the 1999 Master Plan process was to close Riverside Drive through the park in exchange for creating an opulent service yard for the Long Center and the Palmer Events Center (PEC), which forced the PEC into the heart of what had been long been envisioned as the park’s green space. The decision to close the road was carefully vetted by stakeholders, who ordered a professional preliminary traffic study, parking study, and full traffic impact analysis (TIA) of the site, its facilities, and the commuting grid. The finding of the TIA was that closure of the road would induce only a 6-7 second delay on the average peak time commuter passing through the area and across the river. The stakeholders all agreed this was an acceptable price to pay for the unification of the venue’s parklands and the safety of the park’s visitors. Signed by numerous community leaders including all the stakeholders, this agreement culminated in a Master Plan, adopted by City Council, that featured removal of Riverside Drive between the PEC and the railroad tracks.

No sooner was the compromise adopted than the City, in concert with development interests, began maneuvering to double-deal the agreement, attempting to keep the Riverside Drive intact as a commuting throughway. The Real Estate Council of Austin and other development interests pressured Council to hold off closing the road until the original traffic analyses could be trumped by a broader study, the Downtown Access and Mobility Plan (DAMP) Study, with more visionary traffic projections. The Great Streets Plan projects were analyzed in the study with measures to mitigate their impact on traffic flow. Not so with the Riverside closure, which was tacked onto the study at a late date and without the modelling mitigation measures which were suggested for the study. Even so, the DAMP study concluded commuter traffic would flow more easily if the eastbound flow of Riverside alongside Auditorium Shores were eliminated. City Council, wishing to close the roadway completely and upset that the mitigating measures were not considered, ordered the road to be narrowed to two lanes and instructed staff to perform subsequent studies identifying means of mitigating total closure of the roadway. Staff’s initial recommendation that mitigation should offset 100% of Riverside’s traffic load was seen as another aspect of a double standard for new development that placed higher requirements on the park for infrastructure burden than would be applied to any private development project.

Transportation staff never complied with Council and subsequent City Manager direction to perform mitigation studies, knowing that without the technical support Council requested, Council would be too uncomfortable with closure to order it. Absent any further analysis, when imminent development of Phase II of the park forced the issue, the Traffic Department negotiated with stakeholders for an interim reconfiguration of the road, narrowing it to its current two-lane, two-way setup with a roundabout. The design was such that park construction could proceed, and the remaining segment of the road could be inexpensively eliminated later when reasonable study was finally performed.

City Manager Futrell imposed a three-year delay on the project, but even during that time, the Traffic Department continued its insubordinate refusal to conduct the mandated studies. Concerned about pedestrian safety, stakeholders and the City negotiated a set of pedestrian safety measures for the road to be added to the interim design, and the current configuration was constructed in Fall, 2005, just before construction of Butler Park. Unfortunately, the safety measures have performed questionably, and the most important one, automated scheduled road closure gates, were clandestinely value-engineered out of the construction contract, undoing the important decision to close the road during heavier park use hours.

In 2009, a process to update the park Master Plan was aborted by Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza when the scope was determined by the community to remain similar to that of the original master plan, both with respect to construction cost and to the removal of Riverside. However, the process to that point had yielded a proposal to convert the Riverside right-of-way to a pedestrian cultural events plaza that would also preserve an emergency vehicle passageway.

As we approach construction of Phase III of the park on Auditorium Shores under Council mandate to finish revisiting the Master Plan, and despite another six years of stakeholder requests, the Traffic Department has yet to perform the mitigation studies mandated by City Council. They have produced only traffic counts, but these traffic counts show a steadily decreasing westbound use of the road. Current westbound peak traffic flows are only 55% of what they were when the original TIA projected complete closure of the road would induce only a 7 second delay in commuting, and only 44% of what was projected in the DAMP study, which noted that eastbound closure would decrease commuting times. Yet the Traffic Department insists, without study, that preserving this commuter roadway through the middle of our central park is necessary for traffic flow.

Confounded by intransigent insubordination by staff and the willful double-dealing of some community groups on the original site plan compromise, the community must now somehow resolve the Riverside issue, so that the Master Plan can be completed and construction on the next phase of the park can begin.

Why Close Riverside Drive?

Two critical issues rise above a host of others for the need to close Riverside Drive to through traffic: pedestrian safety and the aggregation of contiguous parkland necessary to create a great park. We discuss those here, as well as the special opportunities that can arise with the abandonment of the road as a lightly used commuter shortcut.

To build a great park requires a great tract of land, aggregated so that its critical mass can create a rich park environment with a strong sense of identity and a variety of recreational opportunities. The problem with Town Lake Park is that there is not all that much land available, as great central parks go. The site chosen for the new civic events center encroaches so deeply into the center of the tract that only 21 of “the 54 acres” of parkland south of Barton Springs Road are actually available for park use. The only way to conceive of a great park on the remaining land is to unify it with the parkland north of Riverside. The EDAW planners understood this and insisted on unifying the tracts in their Master Plan.

Leaving Riverside in place would consume not only its right-of-way, which is quite substantial, but would also consign a broad band of parkland along the roadway to being a mere buffer against the roadway, practically useless for the kinds of recreation envisioned for this park. Witness the current situations with Riverside, with Barton Springs Road through Zilker Park, and with Cesar Chavez west of Lamar. Despite the fact that the Auditorium Shores tract has perhaps the most striking view in the city, the sweeping meadows between Riverside and the hike and bike trail are all but devoid of activity. Likewise in Zilker Park, where the only park visitors you are likely to see within 75 yards of Barton Springs Road those struggling to get across or along the road, and those folks are by no means relaxed. It is a tragedy that Zilker is so damaged by the road, but at least in Zilker there is enough land left over to support two wonderful recreational areas. This is simply not true in Town Lake Park, which is further inhibited by Barton Springs Road. Leaving the Riverside corridor through the heart of the tract reduces its prime recreational area to a rather small island within Butler Park and to the currently popular strip immediately alongside Town Lake.

Bisecting the park would disrupt many aspects of its design and concept. The theme of a Hill Country meadow flowing into a bottomland woods and a creekside grove would be fragmented. The possibility of ever devoting some large, central chunk of land to a special enhancement, for example creating an all-hours public plaza northwest of the performing arts and civic centers, or even a sculpture garden, would be completely foreclosed. The fundamental concept of Town Lake Park as being a respite park in the heart of the city stands no chance against the intrusion of commuter traffic. Only in certain recesses would there be any peace from the noise of commuter roadways.

Aesthetically, the road creates a major visual barrier, a great stripe streaming with cars across an otherwise magnificent landscape. The visual barrier would be even more unsightly if the right of way were used for parking as is the loop road in Zilker. A nice aspect of the Observation Hill is that it both screens the west end parking lot from view from afar and lifts the nearby viewer above the visual impact of the nearby parking lot. But nothing mitigates the visual intrusion of commuter traffic across the heart of the park.

The pedestrian and vehicular circulation pattern is one of the principal components of EDAW’s park design. Several major pedestrian and bicycle corridors in the park either align with Riverside or cross it, and and much of the network of strolling paths is very near the Riverside corridor. Clearly, people out for a relaxing stroll do not choose to take their walks near commuter roadways. The realignment of the Hike and Bike Trail around the proposed off-leash area would bring it right up alongside the street. The roadway barrier inhibits those attending events at the cultural facilities from venturing into the northern part of the park. And the strong connections that could be provided between Butler Park and the Town Lake Hike and Bike Trail are broken, just as they are between the two halves of Zilker Park.

But no aspect of the road is more frightening than the danger it poses to pedestrian park visitors. To date, the area has been composed of two functionally distinct parks, Butler and Auditorium Shores, used by different communities, neither of which commonly visits the other. But the finish-out of the park will make each half more attractive to users of the other, increasing the pedestrian crossings of the right-of-way. These users will include many more children, who will be attracted not only to the existing features, but also the Alliance Children’s Garden, the proximity of the proposed off-leash area, the new waterfront features, and hopefully the restroom that will be placed to serve the northwest quadrant of the park. How can the frequent crossings of the road by children, families, people managing dogs, and groups of friends out to have fun possibly be compatible with a stream of weary, impatient, distracted commuters in close
quarters?

The traffic speed studies (1, 2, 3) conducted by the Transportation Department establish that excessive speeding is very common along this unsignalized stretch of road. The presence of parking areas along the right of way creates particular dangers, as lines of sight for both motorists and pedestrians are blocked by parked cars.

The ultimate tragedy would be for the City’s resistance to closing the commuter roadway through its central park to result in the death or serious injury of pedestrian park visitors. We have been lucky so far, but as time passes and park use increases, the tragedy becomes ever more likely.

Some of these points and others have been stated clearly since the planning phases of the project, exemplified by this essay that was circulated during the early days describing the case being made for closure during the master planning and immediately subsequent phases of the project.

Closing the roadway, aside from relieving the negative aspects of the road, would open up new opportunities and fiscal bonuses. The west end parking lot could be gracefully doubled by reflecting it over onto the abandoned roadbed, provided needed parking for the northwest quadrant. The significant cost of constructing a new pedestrian bridge over West Bouldin Creek could be avoided, as the existing street bridge over the creek would be plenty wide enough to accommodate vehicle access to the parking lot, the Hike and Bike Trail, and a commuter bike path. There would be no need for an anticipated new westbound commuter bike path, as the existing hardscape could be used. And there would be no need to invest in automated closure devices to shut the street for pedestrian-only hours.

Most significantly, the abandoned roadbed could be used as the hardscape for the center of an events plaza that could accommodate festivals like Art City Austin, the wine and food festival, and others, while also being integrated into an all-hours public plaza that would come to be identified as Austin’s front porch. The plaza could have a distinctive identity and attraction and be fringed with other elements of interest, such as an art park or sculpture garden. The retention of a hardscape stretch could also support the passage of emergency vehicles through the area as necessary.

What is now a detriment and liability for the park stands ready to be turned into a great asset.

The History of Riverside Drive in Town Lake Park

We turn now to the history of the debate over Riverside Drive and its impact on the park, leading up to our current situation with the updating of the park’s Master Plan.

The 1980’s

That creating a great central park on the shores of Lady Bird Lake between South First and South Lamar required the removal of that portion of Riverside Drive was recognized as soon as the district was being considered as parkland rather than as a site for a convention center. In the mid-1980’s, a volunteer group, the Town Lake Park Alliance, pursued and achieved the parkland dedication of the 54 acres of public lands south of Riverside Drive adjacent to Auditorium Shores, and while they were at it, the parkland dedication of over 300 acres of other public lands along the riverfront. Slides from a historical presentation about the group summarizes the history and impact of the Town Lake Park Allliance.

After the parkland dedications were finally achieved in 1987, an enormously participatory public process culminated with in the completion of the Town Lake Comprehensive Plan, which covered all the parklands from Tom Miller Dam to Longhorn Dam and beyond to what is now Guerrero Colorado River Park. Over 4000 individuals were contacted for participation, with the consultant group led by Larry Speck conducting 114 personal interviews and holding over 200 meetings with interested civic groups.

The central feature of the plan was the creation of a great new central park in the district that is now the Town Lake Park Community Events Center Venue Project. A cornerstone of that treatment was the removal of this stretch of Riverside Drive, as indicated in this schematic of the central portion of the plan.

After a full round of review by City of Austin boards and commissions, the Town Lake Comprehensive Plan was adopted unanimously by City Council in 1988 and subsequently codified in the Town Lake Comprehensive Plan Ordinance, the only comprehensive plan ever so codified by the City of Austin.

Adding to the weight of public input, the comprehensive was incorporated intact into AustinPlan, the City’s master plan developed during the late 1980’s, and the R/UDAT plan (*cite) for downtown. A major economic development report commissioned from the SRI International Public Policy Center by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, “Creating an Opportunity Economy” recommended the City “Develop Town Lake as a “Great Park”, comparable to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco or Central Park in New York.

Yet after clearly expressing its desires and plans, for the next ten years the community awaited the impetus that would untangle the interlocking uses on the Town Lake Park site and enable the park to be realized.

The Creation of the Town Lake Park Venue Project

The impetus came from the University of Texas, which served an imminent eviction notice to the major local performing arts groups who had been performing at UT’s Bass Concert Hall. Thus began the search for a new homw and the push to convert the old Palmer Auditorium to a new performing arts center. A stakeholder group consisting of representatives of ARTS Center Stage (representing the Austin Symphony, Austin Lyric Opera, and Ballet Austin), the Junior League of Austin (representing civic events center users), the South Austin Coalition of Neighborhoods, and the Friends of the Parks of Austin (representing park interests), coalesced to push for the creation of the Town Lake Park Community Events Center Venue Project, which would meld a new performing arts center, a new civic events facility, and a great new Central Park on the parkland composed of Auditorium Shores and the “54 acres” south of Riverside Drive. The venue’s funding mechanism would be a new tax on cars rented locally. After shepharding the creation of the venue through a successful public election in 1998, the stakeholders and the City of Austin formulated a set of goals for the project in a Memorandum of Understanding and pledged mutual support of each other’s goals in planning and implementation of the new cultural park. Every stakeholder signed the memorandum.

The goals for the parkland development in the memorandum, were:

  • Maximize the contiguous open space with emphasis on
    massing rather than fragmenting this space
  • Create a continuous and significant swath of open space west
    of Palmer as the centerpiece of the cultural park, opening the
    site Barton Springs Road to Town Lake
  • Minimize vehicular traffic and parking within the open space
  • Give the park external appeal and maintain attractive sight lines
    within the park
  • Observe the parkland dedication and use the Town Lake Comprehensive
    Plan as the planning foundation for the park development

Every stakeholder understood, from the language of the memorandum, from emails and written material distributed at meetings, and from many discussions within the group, that satisfying each one of these goals required eliminating the streets within the district.

The 1999 Town Lake Park Master Plan

Planning the multi-faceted project was an extraordinarily complex process involving many competing interests. But amidst all the work of developing programming, operational, capacity, access, fiscal, cultural, recreational, safety, aesthetic, legal, and transitional requirements, two fundamental issues rose above all others in the group’s deliberations — the fate of Riverside Drive and the placement of the new facilities: the civic events center, an on-site parking garage, and the service yard area that would be used by both the new civic events facility and the Long Center. Resolving these two issues would set the parameters for much of what would follow and allow the other pieces to fall into place.

The impact of closing Riverside on both the commuter traffic grid and the access to venue facilities was a primary concern and required both initial assessment and subsequent thorough analysis. To this end the professional traffic analysis firm WHM and Associates was contracted to perform a preliminary traffic impact analysis. Since 1998 traffic counts showed that Riverside Drive carried only 20% as much traffic as Barton Springs Road, closure of the road seemed intuitively reasonable to stakeholders. WHM agreed. In its preliminary traffic study, WHM concluded, “it may be feasible to remove the section of Riverside Drive between South 1st Street and Lamar Boulevard”.

With this reassurance, the stakeholder group proceeded to conceive what the project might look like with Riverside Drive closed to through traffic. But all stakeholders remained concerned about the impact that closing Riverside Drive would have on both commuter travel times and access to events at both the events center and the Long Center. No one wanted to go down a path that would be a detriment to either the events or the community’s quality of life. So WHM was hired to follow their initial assessment with a complete traffic impact analysis (TIA) on the street and access scenarios.

The WHM Town Lake Park Traffic Impact Analysis

The complete WHM Traffic Impact Analysis was an extensive piece of professional work modeling traffic flows around the larger area both north and south of the river with state of the art CORSIM modeling technology. It used both current traffic counts and a quantified assessment of future traffic growth through year 2005, including a factor for background demand growth and assuming the completion of eleven major emerging development projects north of the river. A thorough parking demand analysis was also part of the study. WHM calibrated the impacts on levels of service at over 25 area intersections and the composite commuting delays induced by the project, modeling four configurations of Riverside Drive: as-is, as-is with area grid enhancements, westbound-only, and complete closure.

The TIA modelled the performance of area interesections, with results expressed in standard terms of levels of service (LOS). These levels ran from A (best) to F (worst). Their findings for the controlled intersections along the major thoroughfares bordering the project were as follows, with each intersection represented by a LOS grade.

Intersection Performance

AM peak

  • Lamar — existing: DCB — Riverside closed: DBB (slightly improved)
  • Barton Springs — existing: DBDBC — Riverside closed: DAECB (net same)
  • South First — existing: DDC — Riverside closed: ECD (slightly worse)

PM peak

  • Lamar — existing: DDCA — Riverside closed: CCDA (improved)
  • Barton Springs — existing: DBCCC — Riverside closed: CADBB (improved)
  • South First — existing: CDB — Riverside closed: DCB (net same)

In general, the impact of Riverside closure was marginally longer queues on Drake Bridge and reduced queues and delay on the Lamar bridge. The only intersection pushed from acceptable (levels A-D) to unacceptable (E-F) level of service was Barton Springs Road at South First. Unacceptability at level E was defined as an average stopped delay of 40-60 seconds, an interesting range considering the cycle times at many complex intersections, including most along expressway access roads, commonly approximate two minutes.

The report’s verbiage regarding average vehicle trip delay was oddly couched in percentage rather than absolute time increases, and the oral presentation of the results by WHM’s Mike McInturff was even more oblique, focusing on the cumulative number of hours spent in traffic delay for all vehicles collectively during a peak period. These means of explanation tended to magnify the perception of the impact of the closure, while obscuring the impact on the average commuter trip. Commute-time impact from complete closure relative to the As-Is with enhancements configuration was stated as an 8.1% (a.m.) and 7.5% (p.m.) additional delay.

Though the textual explanation of delay times, repeated in executive summary, and the oral presentation seemed designed to obscure the truth of the matter, the hard numbers in the report summary described what this meant in absolute terms and made the facts of the analysis very clear in this table of delay times per vehicle trip through the district and across the river:

Commute Time Delay

AM peak

  • 1999 conditions: 2 min 40 sec
  • 2005 traffic load, 4-lane configuration with mitigation: 2 min 32 sec
  • 2005 traffic load, Riverside westbound only: 2 min 38 sec
  • 2005 traffic load, Riverside closed: 2 min 38 sec

PM peak

  • 1999 conditions: 2 min 2 sec
  • 2005 traffic load, 4-lane configuration with mitigation:2 min 9 sec
  • 2005 traffic load, Riverside westbound only:2 min 12 sec
  • 2005 traffic load, Riverside closed:2 min 16 sec

The core truth of the TIA was that closing Riverside completely, versus keeping all four lanes as was, would lengthen a cross-river, peak hour commuting trip through the area by six seconds in the morning and seven seconds in the evening. Percentage increases were disingenuous: 8 percent of a small number is still a small number. In light of this analysis, the policy decision involved weighing 6.5 seconds of induced delay against the enormous public benefits to both park visitor safety and park scope, design, and amenity made possible by the closure.

Bouyed by the findings from the TIA, the Junior League, parks, ARTS Center Stage, neighborhood stakeholders, and City participants entered the heart of the master planning process secure in the knowledge that removing the roadway would have insignificant impact on commuters, and that the Town Lake Comprehensive Plan vision of removing the roadway between South First Street and the railroad to unify the parkland tracts and protect pedestrians was entirely feasible.

Master Planning — Building Site Issues

The core questions of the master planning process then became the placements of the various new facilities. Neighborhood and parks stakeholders adopted a position that all the major facility development on the site, i.e., the civic events facility, Long Center, and their common parking garage and service yard, could be constructed in a development zone east of a north-south boundary defined by Civic Drive (which separated the Palmer site from Riverside Center) and extending south to preserve a stand of legacy trees in an island of the Palmer parking lot that were dedicated to the fallen soldiers of World War II, and continuing to the east side of the intersection of Barton Springs Road and Bouldin. The master planning firm EDAW initially agreed that there was sufficient land area within that zone to accomplish this.

However ARTS Center Stage and the Palmer Auditorium staff pushed back extremely hard against this notion, insisting that they required an expansive service yard. Accommodating this requirement in the L-shaped geometry of the available site meant that the entire civic events building would need to be pushed to the west entirely beyond the proposed development boundary. The consumption of such a vast amount of parkland right in the heart of what was to have been the park’s green space placed enormous stress on the viability of constructing a great central park on the remaining parkland west of the events centers. The Junior League, being representative of the needs of the events center, tilted toward the ARTS/Palmer position on the question. This conflict was the central point of debate leading up to and including the master planning charettes of Spring, 1999.

Master Planning — Major Issues Resolved at Public Charette

Extensive background information informed the weeklong public design charette for the venue project, the watershed event in the planning process. The charette included major public meetings including one specifically organized by the Downtown Austin Alliance to reach the business and real estate community, which participated heavily in the process.

During the charette, under great pressure from the City Convention Center’s leadership and Palmer Auditorium operator and from ARTS Center Stage to create a “Cadillac” service area, the master planners from EDAW pushed the Palmer Events Center footprint deep into the green space conceived as the heart of Town Lake Park. The planners recognized that after sacrificing this significant chunk of core parkland, the only way to retain the contiguous green space required for a great park was to remove the central portion of Riverside Drive. Wishing for the events center to be successful and abiding by the Memorandum of Understanding to support Palmer’s goals, the other stakeholders under great duress accepted the Palmer location, but only contingent on the absolute assurance that Riverside Drive would be removed from the heart of the park. This was the central agreement of the entire master plan, the lynchin on which the entire development plan turned. All stakeholders, including ARTS Center Stage (the Long Center and their constituent performing arts groups), signed on to the agreement in writing. It was a hard-won compromise, a deal, a brokered agreement which all stakeholder parties and a broad cross-section of community leaders in attendance signed in endorsement.

Master Planning — Subversion on the Road to Adoption

But trouble was afoot. With the Long Center and Convention Center Departments having gotten essentially everything they wanted out of the site plan, with the building and service yard locations firmly in place, and with EDAW completing its work on the Master Plan consistent with the guidance it had been given in the public workshops and by stakeholders, the double dealing began immediately, and the monied powers went to work. Just before the Master Plan was submitted to City Council, an ad hoc business coalition including the Real Estate Council of Austin (RECA), the Austin Hotel/Motel Association, the Downtown Austin Alliance, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and other real estate interests, adopted a resolution, originally drafted on RECA stationery, calling for Riverside Drive to be retained as a commuter roadway.

In the face of this challenge, EDAW maintained unequivocally that road should be closed. Late attempts may have been made to misrepresent their position, because as the plan was moving to City Council, EDAW felt obliged to issue an extraordinary communique, saying, “To clarify our position we offer the following: EDAW does recommend the closing of Riverside Drive between First Street and the RR (railroad) right-of-way, within Town Lake Park. It is our recommendation as the park master planners, charged with creating a great urban park, that the closing of this segment of the street provides the best opportunity for creating a significant and contiguous open space in the heart of the city. We hope that this statement helps clarify and resolve this particular issue.”

Stakeholder groups were shocked, then, after approving the EDAW Master Plan, to see that a new page 5, was inserted at the 11th hour in the package of the plan sent to City Council. The insertion proposed an alternative that retained a scaled-back Riverside Drive through the heart of the previously unified green space. The source of the insertion was not revealed. Stakeholder objections to the unreviewed insertion were ignored, and the Master Plan went to City Council for adoption with the alternative remaining and a recommendation for more study, presumably to try for a third time to find a technical justification for retaining the roadway. Current data could not justify the closure, so new data had to be created.

The DAMP Study

The new data came with the possibility of a third study of the closure being attached to the Downtown Access and Mobility Plan (DAMP) Study. DAMP would be predicated on traffic demand projected after eventual full buildout of all the redevelopment projects envisioned for the study area. The study was motivated primarily by an effort to analyze and justify elements of the “Great Streets Plan” then being promoted by some downtown interests. Park advocates were supportive of the DAMP effort, provided the study would be as evenhanded about Riverside and the park development as it would to the proposed “Great Streets” projects that motivated the study. It seemed reasonable to study additional predicted demand with an eye to creatively absorbing its impact.

However, to stakeholders’ dismay, the closure of Riverside Drive was not included in the initial DAMP Study statement of work. It appeared that supporters of the DAMP Study, the Traffic Department, and the City were set on avoiding the very study that had been used as an excuse for delaying the decision on Riverside closure adopted in the park Master Plan.

After stakeholders protested, the study contract was amended to include a closure analysis for Riverside. The stakeholders, however, were not allowed to vet the criteria or scenarios to be used in the Riverside analysis. Suspicions that a double standard might be applied turned out to be very well founded. Whereas the delays imposed by the Great Streets plan elements were presented to the public in balance with mitigating measures that would streamline the grid and offset the impact of the desired changes, the Riverside closure was modeled without the benefit of obvious modifications to the grid that would help absorb the redirected traffic. During the study, stakeholders suggested what some mitigating adjustments to the grid might be, and Transportation Department staff identified a number of the pinch points that contributed to the problem of load absorption. Each of these pinch points had obvious solutions, which were suggested for contribution to the study. However, none of these suggestions were incorporated. Not surprisingly, since the Riverside closure was modeled in nearly the worst possible scenario, the DAMP Study produced delay factors that argued against complete closure, and no offsetting proposals were offered.

Though these problems became apparent weeks before the study went to City Council, and there was plenty of time to incorporate mitigation measures into the Riverside assessment, staff did not allow this to happen. Austan Librach was quoted in the American Statesman as saying to do so would be expensive, and any expense over $5000 could not be tolerated.

Even so, the DAMP Study concluded that traffic flow would be significantly smoother with Riverside’s eastbound through traffic eliminated than if it were retained, even in the existing four-lane configuration. The study also observed that within the middle of the park district, one lane was sufficient to handle the westbound flow without inducing any delay whatsoever, provided the intersections at South Lamar and South First remained in a multi-lane configuration.

The Riverside component of the DAMP study was attacked strenuously for its methodology. English ex-pat and professionally trained traffic analyst Paul Mullen issued a report faulting the absence of any source-destination analysis, for presupposing without evidence the distribution of redirected Riverside traffic load, and for not accounting for driver discretion in adjusting their commuting patterns that would correct the imbalances derived in the DAMP modeling. For example, though the study’s hypothesized traffic redistribution created greater stress on Drake Bridge than on the Lamar bridge, it did not attempt to adjust its parameters, as drivers would, to choose Lamar as a less congested route. Moreover, Mullen made observations similar to the park advocates, that if the redirection of traffic created pinch points in the grid, for each of these there were solutions that would mitigate the induced complications.

Park stakeholders, meanwhile, accumulated the list of traffic grid adjustments, the locations of several of which were identified in the CORSIM modeling, and presented them to the City with requests that they be incorporated into follow-up CORSIM modeling. Several of these suggestions required little capital investment, and some of those that did were emerging as likely projects for the City to implement. City Traffic Engineer Gordon Derr developed a similar, largely overlapping list of mitigation measures suitable for investigation.

DAA and RECA, meanwhile, were divided on the DAMP Study recommendations. For RECA, no induced delays or lane restrictions of any kind were acceptable. DAA took the more moderate position that the delays induced by the Great Streets proposals, up to 93 seconds for some single elements and cumulatively much more across all their endorsed projects, were worth the advantages of performing the conversions. But even knowing that the delays induced by Riverside closure could have been easily and substantially reduced, neither group was willing to balance the benefits of not having an unimpeded four-lane commuter raceway through the middle of a space-constricted central park against any delays imposed on commuters. RECA’s hard line stance left no room for accommodating broader civic goals in the street grid. DAA was happy to trade pain for gain in the CBD, but not for a central park.

The City Transportation Department presented the DAMP Study results at a series of public and board and commission meetings. Stakeholders tracking the meetings had to repeatedly point out that the Riverside component of the study had not been balanced with mitigation strategies as had the other projects modelled in the study. After a series of these corrected presentations, the Department finally settled into admitting that the mitigation measures had not been studied as directed.

The City’s Environmental Board, then led by Lee Leffingwell, reviewed the staff’s recommendations on near-term road projects in light of the DAMP Study, and resolved that contrary to the staff recommendation, Riverside Drive should be eliminated from the roadway plan and permanently closed to motor vehicle traffic, citing pedestrian safety and the development goals of the park.

Council Resolves to Reconfigure Riverside

When it became apparent that the DAMP study had been fouled by its refusal to include mitigating measures in the Riverside analysis, Charles Betts, Executive Director of the Downtown Austin Alliance, spoke privately with this author (Larry Akers), conceding that an “acceptable compromise” would be to retain the roadway with one lane of traffic in both directions through the heart of the park. When Mr. Akers reminded Mr. Betts that the DAMP study had shown that retaining any eastbound lane induced delay into the system, Betts repeated simply that one lane in each direction was “a good compromise”.

By the time the DAMP Study went to City Council, the problems with the study expressed in the Mullen report and the protests of park advocates that the study had been rigged to not allow for Riverside mitigation were understood by the Councilmembers. Council heard the staff presentation of the DAMP concept plan and enacted various resolutions in response. With respect to Riverside, there were two staff recommendations to Council. Commensurately, there were two parts to the Council Resolution 021205-66C. The first was to immediately reduce Riverside to one lane in each direction. This recommendation was peculiar in that it reflected Charles Betts’ so-called “acceptable compromise” while neglecting the DAMP study’s findings regarding eastbound traffic. The second instructed the Transportation Department to “Continue to develop alternatives that would make viable the removal of Riverside Drive as an at-grade roadway through Town Lake Park. (Riverside Drive shall not be permanently closed through the Park until such time as alternatives are implemented to mitigate Riverside Drive’s lost traffic capacity.)” Significantly, Council voted to amend their draft resolution, which had used the word “replace” rather than “mitigate”, establishing that the viability of removing the road did not depend on mitigating measures capable of absorbing 100% of the impact of Riverside’s closure. Developing the alternatives meant devising mitigating measures that would help absorb the load and modeling those measures with the City’s new analytical tools.

The Transportation Department never acted on the second part of the resolution. Despite frequent reminders from project stakeholders, and despite the very specific agenda for study, the work was simply never done. The City now owned the CORSIM tools and had learned to use them in-house, but the Transportation Department would not perform the work directed by Council. Planning Department Director Librach informed the stakeholders that the City engineers who could perform the modeling
“had other things on their plate”.


The Transportation Department, with vocal support from RECA, did offer to conduct temporary closures of the road to study the impact on traffic flow. These would obviously be biased toward failure. Their temporary and random nature would lead to driver route surprise and confusion, a prime contributor to traffic flow delay and an inhibitor of adaptive response over time. Being designed for failure, they would be used to justify retaining the road in its full configuration. Stakeholders sternly rejected this approach.

The Persistent Double Standard

Major new central city development projects are frequently given special consideration and approved, despite placing place additional stress on the commuting grid. The policy judgement to accept such projects is to weigh the benefit of those projects against the stress on the traffic grid and the public expense of infrastructure support. Yet the City, or the powers behind the City, have refused to accept Town Lake Park on the same terms, as a project that places a demand on the grid whose pain is justified by the public benefit of the project.

With commercial development, the additional demand is from the new vehicle trips it generates, primarily at peak traffic hour, and the benefit is the increment of tax base. For the park, which generates relatively little demand, particularly at peak hours, according to the WHM study, the demand is the offloading of Riverside Drive by its closure, and the benefit is obvious — all those things for which we celebrate and hope for this park.

The powers that be have stymied this park, particularly with regard to traffic impact, and will not be satisfied unless the park and its street closures impose NO additional peak hour demand on the street grid. To some of them, the public benefit becomes irrelevant unless there is no traffic impact. In the logic of the arguments of the business interests who have fought the park, there is no equation, no place for the weighing of public benefit against traffic impact. The street grid capacity is there to serve private development, not public amenity. This philosophy, this double standard, is out of character with the community and should not be credited in policy decisions.

Phase II Park Development Approaches

The Traffic Department was playing from a position of power. Council, despite its desire to do so, would not vote to close Riverside Drive without analytically derived, quantitative evidence showing that the closure’s impact, should there be any, could be reasonably mitigated. Only the Traffic Department could provide this evidence. No study meant no evidence, and no evidence meant no closure. With the Palmer Events Center now open for operation, no one could reasonably argue that if the City would not close Riverside Drive in accordance with its Master Plan agreement, the other side of the agreement should also be renoeged and the PEC moved back behind the line between the old Palmer port-a-coucher and Bouldin Avenue. The department was forsaking its responsibility of providing professional assessments to the City Council that the Council could weigh in the larger context of public benefit in coming to policy decisions. Instead the department usurped the policy-making role of City Council.

As the Traffic Department’s insubordination became more apparent and the onset of Phase II design was imminent, neighborhood and park advocates complained again to City Council and the City Manager. The situation became sufficiently embarassing to the Transportation Department that they conceded to a meeting with stakeholders and Planning Department Director Librach to come to some sort of agreement on how to treat Riverside Drive through Phase II construction.

How strange then, in the light of Mr. Betts’ offer to “compromise”, was the Transportation and Planning Departments’ proposal to retain Riverside as a two-lane road in the heart of the park, with one lane moving in each direction? When elimination of the eastbound lane was proposed on the grounds that it induced commuting delay, the Transportation and Planning Departments were firm. One lane in each direction. Again, since the WHM study showed the eastbound lanes could be closed with no negative impact, and since the DAMP Study analysis showed that retaining the eastbound lanes actually slowed movement through the grid, on what basis was the decision really made, and by whom? It was becoming increasingly easy to imagine that the position taken by RECA, the DAA, and the other real estate interests to hold onto the commuter road through the park might be threatened by the result of any balanced, monitored analysis of closure options, so the analysis must be prevented.

Out of this negotiation came the interim design that is currently in place on the ground. Riverside would be reconfigured to two lanes, one in each direction, with a roundabout north of the PEC and the western portion of the old eastbound roadway reused for parking. This was to be an interim configuration, allowing yet more time for the Traffic Department to perform its mitigation studies. The layout was such that the road could be easily closed for events and on weekends. Moreover, when an ultimate decision to close the road completely was reached, the roundabout could serve as the east end terminus, the new west end parking lot could be reflected to the north to double its capacity, and the portion of the road between the parking lot and the roundabout could be easily and inexpensively removed. This configuration would allow the Phase II work to be done without sacrificing more precious parkland to a new west end parking lot. The ultimate removal of the central link could be performed for the next phase of park development, north of the Riverside right of way, and this could be done without touching the newly developed Phase II area that came to be known as Butler Park.

Phase II, Attempt II

Toby Futrell’s delay of Phase II park construction re-set the time line for a 2005 endeavor. As the new construction date approached, stakeholders continued to push for the Riverside closure mitigation studies to be performed, and the Transportation Department, defying the City Council resolution, continued to stonewall. The Council resolution to narrow the road to one lane in each direction, however, forced the question of fine-tuning the previously negotiated design for pedestrian safety.

Pedestrian Safety Measures Negotiated

In the weeks leading up to the Riverside construction, with the Butler Park design essentially completed, the City and stakeholders met intensively to determine how to handle pedestrian and park visitor safety in the continued presence of Riverside Drive. Clearly, to the many children who would come to enjoy the Observation Hill, the Liz Carpenter Fountain, and the other park amenities, children who might act impulsively, the roadway was a threat. Likewise to the pedestrians and bicyclists who would converge through the park to the Hike and Bike Trail and the new Pfluger Bridge.

Stop signs at crosswalks and active speed controls like speed humps or heavily textured pavement were rejected by the Traffic Department. The Department again offered to conduct and monitor temporary closures, and the idea was rejected for the same reasons previously stated.

Nevertheless, in the mediated meetings stakeholders and the City agreed to a package of measures to improve pedestrian safety. These included pedestrian activated crosswalk controls in the form of embedded crosswalk lights at multiple sites to stop oncoming traffic, reducing the speed limit to 30 mph, ensuring the roadway transition area configuration calmed traffic to speeds below 30 mph, safe islands in the medians near the parking lot and where Riverside narrowed from four lanes to two, automatic closure of the road on weekends, holidays, and on weeknights when events were being held in the park, signage, and a number of other measures. Stakeholders were greatly skeptical that these measures would be adequate, particularly the embedded lights, which would be scarcely visible to westbound traffic with the sun low in the sky at that time of peak park activity in the evening.

Adopting the Riverside Realignment Construction Contract

No progress on the roadway could come without a struggle.

A last ditch effort to upset the interim realignment plan was mounted by the Long Center, which objected that the realignment would upset its ability to accommodate bus drop-offs for large performances for children. Project Manager Robert Holland (see a summary of his report) easily dispensed with this objection, pointing out how the roundabout accommodated a bus drop-off plan and measuring the configuration to illustrate that there was far more than adequate on-site space for bus parking. Typically, performing arts centers utilize off-site parking and a shuttle plan for such events, but the on site accommodations were so generous that Long Center would not need to do this. Furthermore, the roundabout was a solution to the problems anticipated with automobile queues backing up into South First Street as attendees arrived at the parking garage to attend major performances. The roundabout offered an ample queuing configuration.

When City Council considered the realignment construction contract, Councilmember Jennifer Kim offered some last resistance, parroting RECA’s familiar objections to giving up any lane of the grid anywhere, but the argument had no technical support. An opponent of any modification of the four-lane, divided Riverside, she secured a resolution directing a Council presentation on the impact of narrowing Riverside to two lanes, “with particular attention to increased traffic density downtown”. The briefing apparently gave Council no reason to hesitate in resolving to reduce the street.

With backup material briefly summarizing the negotiated pedestrian safety measures, City Council considered and adopted a contract to perform the realignment construction with the pedestrian mitigation measures that had been negotiated. Again, there was an explicit understanding that the modified configuration was to be an interim measure, sufficient to not interfere with Phase II park construction, but needing to be revisited before Phase III was designed.

Pedestrian Safety Measures: Betrayal and Failure

As inadequate as the pedestrian measures may have been in concept, they have been failures in implementation. As anticipated, failures by drivers to observe the crosswalk lights are very frequent. Some of the activation equipment is inoperative.

Worse, without the knowledge of the Public Works Director who oversaw the mediated negotiations, the automatic road closure mechanisms were “value-engineered” out of the Riverside realignment construction contract and never revived. The Transportation Department attempted to reinvent the negotiated road closure agreement, claiming the closures were to be “experimental and only occasional”. For this gambit, Transportation had to be overruled by the other departments. Performance of the agreed upon closures was then pushed on the Parks Department, which had to bear the cost of closure permits and the placing, manning, and removal of unsightly, temporarary barricades every weekend. There was no way their stressed operations budget could accommodate all this, and after four weeks, the weekend closures became a thing of the past.

So while the re-routing of the street has achieve some traffic calming, the failure of the other measures continues to endanger pedestrians. Drivers regularly and sometimes aggressively exceed the speed limit through the heart of the park. Traffic speed studies (East of roundabout, Oct 19-22, 2011, West of roundabout, Oct 19-22, 2011, West of roundabout, Oct 1, 2011) have repeatedly observed speeds as high as 68 MPH on this stretch of the street, and drivers regularly pass through at speeds from 45-55 MPH.

Only by sheer luck has the tragedy of pedestrian injury or death in the park been avoided to date.

To the Present

Over four years have passed since the opening of Butler Park. Financial improprieties by the Convention Center Department and defensive maneuvers by the Law Department and City Manager have induced delays in the project and consumed the time and energy of project stakeholders. Yet exposure of the financial irregularities has led to a revival of the park development effort. City Council resolved to complete the master plan update initiated in 2009 and ordered the City Manager to prepare a finance plan for finishing the park.

Despite the passage of time, the Transportation Department has continued its refusal to conduct studies modeling the closure of Riverside Drive with the mitigation measures to help absorb its redirected traffic. When pressed, they will occasionally turn over some traffic counts, as if those provide sufficient evidence to put the question to rest.

Yet in the mean time, two of the mitigation measures that were proposed as likely means for absorbing Riverside’s traffic have come to pass. The first was the conversion of Cesar Chavez to two-way traffic, enabling a left turn from Drake Bridge onto westbound Cesar Chavez. Studies have clearly established that the demand on Riverside is driven not by commuters trying to reach or depart from downtown, but rather by commuters from the southeast trying to reach or return from northbound Mopac or Lamar. The direct left turn onto Cesar Chavez relieved the previously significant delay induced by having to loop through a chicane of one-way streets downtown to accomplish the same turn.

The recent completion of the Pfluger Bridge extension across Cesar Chavez, though not necessarily obvious, should be a contributor to relief for Riverside Traffic. CORSIM modeling during the DAMP study showed that the high frequency of pedestrian crossings of Cesar Chavez near Lamar required lengthy pedestrian crossing time at the signals at Sandra Muraida and B. R. Reynolds. The bridge gives pedestrians a safe, elevated option. This should allow the crossing signal times to be reduced, or in the case of Sandra Muraida, eliminated, significantly increasing the capacity of Cesar Chaves and helping induce traffic to cross Drake Bridge before proceeding west.

The other mitigation measures proposed by the City were not so capital intensive. As park advocates have stated for nine years now, these should be modeled to determine how much load from Riverside could be mitigated, and to see whether the remaining delay would fall within bounds judged to be an acceptable tradeoff for protecting pedestrians in our great central park on the lake and for creating the contiguous green space that will finally allow the park to become great.

An Adaptive Reuse of Riverside

During the 2009 master planning sessions, the idea took shape of converting the Riverside right-of-way between the roundabout and the Observation Hill parking lot into a community festival plaza.

The plaza would become home for events like the Art City Austin Festival and the Austin Wine and Cheese Festival, among others, that have recently been held on downtown City streets. The street closures have resulted in a variety of problems related to downtown mobility and access to churches and businesses, and the closures also impose a heavy direct cost on the events. These events have a city-wide identity strongly linked to downtown, and their continued success depends in part on maintaining that identity. Providing a home for these and other cultural events within the cultural Town Lake Park would allow them to retain that identity, albeit in an even more attractive setting, solve the street closure problems downtown, greatly simplify event logistics and reduce costs, and help establish the park as the cultural center of the city.

Moreover, even when not in use for major events, the plaza could become the front porch for the city, a place for gatherings both formal and informal, a place to enjoy a lunch outdoors, people watch, meet friends, and do all the other things a strongly identified public plaza supports. The plaza would be conceived as a cultural site, its design being evocatively artistic in its own right, while also serving as a venue for display of artworks and an axis around which cultural features like art gardens could be placed.

Some hardscape would need to remain, both to support the ingress and egress of vehicles and equipment necessary to mount a festival, and also to provide a path through which emergency vehicles could pass, providing them essentially the same access they currently have with the street. A strip of the existing pavement structure could serve this purpose, minimizing the cost of maintaining that access.

But the area would remain one for pedestrians, safe from the cut-through commuter traffic that currently cuts the park in two with an unpleasant no-mans land and threatens the safety of pedestrians crossing from one half to the other. Furthermore, the truncated portion to the west could be repurposed for the additional parking that will be needed, and which would need to otherwise consume the precious remaining parkland. And absent through traffic, the existing street bridge over West Bouldin Creek would likely be sufficient to serve segregated driveway access, bike path, and hike and bike trail use, eliminating the need for an expensive new pedestrian bridge for the trail.

2011: The Latest Word from the Transportation Department

To date, the mitigation measures have still not been studied, nor has the Transportation Department indicated any willingness to do so. The department’s intention is clear: Riverside will remain a commuter roadway bisecting the park and injecting commuter traffic into the park at peak park usage hours in the evening.

A July 6 memo from Director Rob Spillar states, “My perspective is that the capacity provided by Riverside is vitally important to the overall network both north and south of the river.” This plain statement, made without the benefit of any of the analysis that has been demanded for over nine years, would taint any subsequent analysis that might be performed in less than a completely transparent manner, open to and vetted by the public. The only evidence that the Transportation Department provides to support this predisposition are a compilation of traffic counts. Without analysis, traffic counts are just numbers. Without consideration of how those numbers might change if other network adjustments were made, they tell an incomplete story of achievable conditions.

To Rob Spillar’s credit, he is willing to consider joint configuration of the street as a commuter road and events plaza. However, commuter road use would negate many of the benefits of the pedestrian-only plaza configuration and would continue to induce the danger and disruption of through traffic, particularly in those after-work hours when park use is likely to be heaviest.

But Should We Believe Their Conclusions?

The traffic counts that have been compiled by the City, and those that have been used in previous studies, nevertheless tell an interesting and compelling story, and not with the conclusion provided by the Transportation Department. Far from providing evidence that Riverside cannot be closed, they provide mounting evidence that it easily could.

Prior to the venue development, traffic counts from the year 2000 for westbound Riverside Drive through the park during evening peak hour were as follows. (All counts indicate vehicles/hour.)

  • 733 from westbound Riverside east of S. First and proceeded west into the park
  • 124 from northbound S. First and turning left onto Riverside
  • 93 from southbound S. First and turning right onto Riverside.
  • 950 vehicles per hour total

This traffic volume would be consistent with the measurements used by WHM in their Traffic Impact Analysis for the Town Lake Park Master Plan, which illustrated that the impact of closing the road completely would be negligible under the unimproved conditions existing at that time and without taking into account other mitigation possibilities.

The DAMP Study projection, which included additional demand from planned projects, the equivalent of which and more are now developed, was that 1200 vehicles per hour would use westbound Riverside during evening peak. The lack of any consideration for mitigating design allowed the projection to be used to justify retaining westbound (only) traffic on Riverside. (The greater delays that would be induced by other components of the Great Streets Plan, even if mitigated, were judged to be acceptable.)

Yet the current traffic counts show a radical reduction in the use of Riverside from those previously observed and projected levels. The DAMP study established that maintaining any eastbound through traffic induced delays to the grid by complicating signals at the South First and Lamar intersections. Moreover, according to the City’s traffic counts, westbound use of the road has declined in recent years.

  • 2005 — 8713 vehicles per day
  • 2007 — 7494
  • 2009 — 5955
  • 2011 — 5850

More significant are the counts for westbound flow during the evening peak period:

  • 442 — 4:00-5:00 pm
  • 526 — 5:00-6:00 pm
  • 412 — 6:00-7:00 pm

Morning peak is even less, reaching only 411 at the 7:00-8:00 am peak.

This bears repeating:

  • 950 vehicles per hour at p.m. peak, 2000
  • 1200 projected for 2005 in 2002
  • 526 now

So WHM’s preliminary study indicated that even with nearly twice the current level of traffic, “it may be feasible to remove the section of Riverside Drive between South 1st Street and Lamar Boulevard”. In their subsequent and much more thorough CORSIM modeling, redirecting 177% of current peak traffic flow would induce only 7 seconds of additional delay to a cross-river commuter.

We remind those who wish to give credence to the DAMP Study’s closure recommendation that the estimated traffic flow on which that recommendation was based is well OVER TWICE the flow now occurring.

So while reviewing the recent traffic data, we should keep in mind that the problem we are trying to solve now is much smaller than the problem we faced during the original master plan and the problem anticipated in the DAMP Study. Recent traffic counts are barely half of what they once were and are much less than half of what they were projected to be in an unmitigated scenario. The mitigating measures that were submitted for study should much more easily relieve the traffic to be diverted from Riverside than when originally proposed.

An interesting study reported in the New York Times recently pointed out a phenomenon in actual traffic behavior that is likely not revealed in current CORSIM modelling, but has a sound basis in probability, statistics, and queuing theory and in the observation of actual traffic flows. In at least half of all cases, adding a new street in a congested traffic grid probably results in longer travel times. Conversely, removing a street can result in simpler, more streamlined traffic flow with shorter travel times in the area.

Who Is Doing the Deciding?

Clearly, the City Council, which has the sole authority to decide whether Riverside should be closed, is not being given the information allowing them to do so, in spite of their demands that it be provided.

The project’s public stakeholders are not doing the deciding. Their wishes regarding Riverside have been thwarted for over 12 years despite any evidence to justify the thwarting. Real estate interests which participated fully in the public process but did not like its negotiated outcomes have been able to keep the parts of the compromises they like (e.g., the Long Center service yard) and arrange to have the parts they disliked (the Riverside closure) subverted by City staff and Council.

Is the Transportation Department doing the deciding, or are they just following orders? Their insubordination to both Council and City Manager directives does not seem the kind of thing that would come naturally and voluntarily to engineers, nor the kind of thing that would be tolerated by higher management.

One must wonder why when WHM presented the findings of their TIA, they went to such lengths to disguise the result of the delay times their modelling showed. One must wonder whose agenda Austan Librach was referring to, when he said studying Riverside was not on it. One must wonder about the names, particularly RECA’s, that were all over a proposal that bypassed the extensive master planning process to become, at the last minute, part of the Master Plan sent to City Council. One must wonder why the “acceptable compromise” proposed by the executive director of the Downtown Austin Alliance for two-lane, bidirectional traffic on Riverside through the park somehow became the fact on the ground, even after the City’s DAMP Study analysis showed it not to be the most efficient way to move traffic. One must wonder why Rob Spiller entered the current process intent on preserving this “vitally important” roadway, when his own evidence shows the street’s use has declined by almost half from a level at which it was quantitatively shown to be unnecessary. What kind of transparency allows these decisions to be made completely outside the extensive public process the City has sponsored for this park?

Who is making these decisions?

What Kind Of City Are We?

When the City of Portland, Oregon realized that their Willamette River waterfront was an asset that could be the jewel of its central city, they demolished an entire waterfront freeway so they could make it so. Now millions of locals and tourists enjoy the waterfront park, and you will hear none of them lamenting the loss of their expressway.

When the City of Austin proposed to eliminate the left turn from southbound Lamar onto eastbound Riverside, people howled like their lives would be turned upside down and their evenings wrecked. Funny thing: the change was made, and no one found real cause to complain.

When the Town Lake Park Master Plan proposed to eliminate the lightly used segement of Riverside Drive that would reduce, disrupt, and fragment its new centerpiece park and endanger its visitors, the real estate interests howled like we were out of our wits. “Many great parks have roads through them!” they argued, citing New York’s Central Park and ignoring that Central Park has eight completely roadless spaces within it that are larger than the entire Butler Park/Auditorium Shores district. Central Park, of course, would be more aptly compared to the entire Lady Bird Lake Corridor, which contains the busiest section of interstate highway in the nation, the Mopac Expressway bridge, major thoroughfare crossings at Lamar, South First, Congress, and Pleasant Valley Road, and whose parkland is further chopped by Barton Springs Road and Cesar Chavez. Those making this argument seem to think Austinites have never seen a great park, nor can we recognize that we do not have one.

We can, though, and we have the desire and the means to create one. We are the kind of community that can blend arts and recreation, civic events and civic beauty, business and fun, all day and evening and night. We can give musical and cultural opportunities to dripping wet kids. We can put both fine art and zany art in a free, public space, right in the middle of the most brilliant part of the city. We can provide a park where we can do all these things without fear of being run over by a weary or anxious commuter, ever.

This park is how we will say that.

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