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New measure calling for more parkland heads to Austin City Council

Austin’s parks department could net 35 more acres of parkland and up to $3 million more a year to acquire and develop parks under a proposal the City Council will consider Thursday.

To meet the demand new residents create for parks, the city has long required new developments to set aside 5 acres for every 1,000 residents who would live there, or pay a flat fee of $650 per unit.

Those numbers haven’t been changed since 1985 and 2007, respectively, and the parks department now wants to significantly up them. The vast majority of developers pay the fee, while about 15 percent end up dedicating land, said Randy Scott, a parks planner for the city.

There’s broad consensus the fees need to increase. The parks department has proposed fees that range from $943 per unit to $1,551 per unit, with the higher fees for the lowest-density developments that tend to have more people in each household.

The council would consider updating the fee in each year’s budget, so it stays in step with current costs, Scott said.

Over the last several weeks, the parks department hammered out a compromise on land dedication with parks advocates and the development community, though some are still pushing for further tweaks.

The department would determine whether a developer pays a fee or sets aside land based on several factors, such as whether the site is in an area with few parks, Scott said. A developer would only be able to pay a fee if the land owed is less than 6 acres or the developer doesn’t have adequate parkland, Brent Lloyd from the city’s Law Department told council members Wednesday.

The parks department is suggesting 9.4 acres of park for every 1,000 residents, which developers could meet by dedicating land to the city or by creating privately-owned open space and amenities with public access.

Things would be a little different in the “urban core,” where dense development is more prevalent. There, the total land dedicated could be capped at 15 percent of the total site, and developers would pay a fee for the remaining amount of land they otherwise would have dedicated. A developer could agree to dedicate more land than that, or the city parks director could ask a city commission to require additional parkland.

Developers had pushed for the cap, saying that under the new formula a new problem arose: The typical urban 250-unit apartment development is on 2 to 3 acres, and the formula would have required dedication of 4 acres, said Taylor Steed, a board member for the Real Estate Council of Austin.

“We’re proud of the fact that we’ve come to a compromise,” Steed said. “We’d hate to see that undone on Thursday.”

Some parks advocates say they’re OK with the concept but want the boundaries of the urban core to be smaller — the parks department is proposing Texas 71 to the south, U.S. 183 to the east and north, and a more jagged boundary on the west that stretches as far as Loop 360 at one point — or for the cap to only apply to smaller tracts in the core.

Parks board member Alison Alter said there are large tracts in the core that could one day be redeveloped, and with the cap, the amount of parkland dedicated could be less than what’s required now, which she said is already inadequate.

“Staff has been … trying to do what they can to accomplish the goals for parks and open space while trying to accommodate developers’ needs for certainty,” Alter said.

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