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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