If talk of the “miracle at the springs” contains a touch of hyperbole, perhaps those whispering of it in the offices of City Hall can be forgiven.
After more than two years of debates in which tempers occasionally flared — Barton Springs sometimes has that effect on Austinites — peace was declared between competing tribes of nature enthusiasts, and as Thursday night ticked toward Friday morning the City Council unanimously approved a plan to refurbish the grounds around Barton Springs Pool. Work is scheduled to start in October on a project that virtually everyone who’s taken an interest says has at least some good points.
“We’ve disagreed a lot, we’ve had some tense moments, and it’s finally starting to come together to where we can finally all be friends and be united in our love for Barton Springs,” said Gary Beyer, president of Friends of Barton Springs Pool, just before the council voted to go forward with the work.
There had been much vetting, venting and altering as the plan was chewed over in a long-running series of public meetings, and the final compromise involved redirecting one of two crushed granite paths the city plans to install on the south side of the pool, to satisfy critics who said the paths will be too obtrusive.
The work will also include revitalizing the tree court by the main entrance, adding lighting, installing pumps and other measures that would improve the clarity of the water, planting more than 100 trees and taking down the power lines spanning the pool.
The project will be part of a larger, many-years-long, $6.5 million effort to care for a public attraction that is showing wear from 700,000-plus visitors annually. About $3 million has been spent; the grounds improvements, which do not yet have a price tag, will come from the remaining amount.
Those efforts will be supplemented by roughly $2 million voters approved in November to restore the 65-year-old bathhouse, including returning the pool’s entrance to its historical spot at the building’s center.
The project approved Thursday includes work on the hillside to the south of the pool — and that is where much of the dispute has focused.
Friends of Barton Springs Pool, a nonprofit formed in 2006 to recruit volunteers to help clean the pool and maintain the grounds, was generally in favor of the city’s plans. But some environmental groups and some regular pool users lobbied to keep the south hillside, which slopes from a small gatehouse down to the pool deck, as untouched as possible. The city eventually settled on a final proposal to move the fence back and enlarge the south grounds, and to add an irrigation system to help the sometimes frazzled grass popular with sunbathers.
The lingering point of contention was the crushed granite pathways, one of which would lead from the south entrance to a lookout point, the other down to the pool. The city staff contended those pathways are necessary to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The naturalists contended that was too much development.
On Tuesday, in what amounted to a last-ditch effort to get the sides to find common ground — and what several speakers described Thursday as the “kumbaya moment” — Council Member Laura Morrison gathered some of the pool enthusiasts together and suggested moving a new lookout point closer to the entrance, thereby allowing a shorterpath.
“It’s a civil rights issue,” Morrison said at Thursday’s council meeting.
That statement drew applause from advocates for disabled pool users, who said they need the trails to traverse the south grounds.
“Being denied that beauty … reminds you that you are not part of something, you’re apart from it,” said Jennifer McPhail, a member of Adapt Texas who uses a wheelchair. “Why do I need access to Barton Springs Pool? For the same reasons everyone else does.”
As befits the personal connection many feel with Barton Springs, some speakers came away less than happy about the new lights, the trails, the fact the city did not reduce parking or propose a shuttle service — an idea Mayor Lee Leffingwell noted does not have a funding source — and other aspects of the proposal.
“We have ADA ramps on the north side” of the pool, resident Frank Rader said. “When the back side gate is closed, I have to go around to the north side. We all have our challenges.”
Still, the Austin Sierra Club and the Save Our Springs Alliance dropped their objections, in what SOS co-founder Bill Bunch called “qualified support.”