Commentary: Don’t pave paradise to put up a parking lot — or a stadium

Now that Butler Park has been removed from consideration as the site of the proposed Major League Soccer stadium, attention has shifted to an even worse idea: East Austin’s Roy G. Guerrero Park, a wild slice of the Colorado River 10 minutes from downtown that has somehow survived into the 21st century in its natural condition.

The very fact that our civic leaders are giving attention to the idea of turning our riverfront parks into big-dollar corporate concessions reveals much about why so many feel Austin has lost its way in its relentless pursuit of growth. For all its pretensions of being a green, outdoor-loving city, Austin is working hard to pave paradise and put up a parking lot — and there would be no surer way to do just that than to put a giant stadium in the woods where the Chisholm Trail once ran.

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Guerrero Park is probably the single-best natural remnant of the wild Austin that was here before settlement — a park bigger than Zilker that fronts the natural channel of the river below Longhorn Dam. Here is how the city’s own staff described the area in its 1985 study that led to the original protection of these riverfront lands from development:

“The Colorado River and its environs … are very different in character from the upstream dammed segment and its highly urbanized environment. The aesthetic quality of the river corridor is best described as pastoral, tranquil. The scene is that of the Colorado River in early days: gravel and sand bars, shallower waters easily fished by many species of water fowl and other birds, e.g., osprey, bald eagles and peregrine falcons and beds of submerged aquatic plants, and ashes, willows and anacuas. Although Highway 183 noises dominate the soundscape of the far eastern boundary, even there the river is quite lovely and peaceful.”

The park remains in that condition today, largely because of the hard work of neighbors and community leaders to protect it — and because of the generosity and vision of Roberta Crenshaw, who donated the core lands of the park. Crenshaw is the woman Lady Bird Johnson credited as the real force behind the Town Lake greenbelt — the woman who kept motorboats off Town Lake, and one of the leaders in the creation of the Shoal Creek greenbelt. Though Crenshaw died in 2005, we can imagine what she would say if she heard that consideration was being given to placing a gigantic corporate entertainment complex in the middle of the park she gave to the community in the spirit of maintaining our natural heritage.

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Guerrero Park is rapidly becoming a tremendously well-used and beloved park — building on the longtime use of the parklands and the river by fishermen, birders, paddlers, hikers, cyclists and residents of East Austin. That’s no surprise when you consider how deep the heritage of this place is. The section of the park where the stadium would go is right where the Chisholm Trail traveled through Austin — and before that it, was an Indian trail. It is true that the course of Country Club Creek that runs through the park has suffered from heavy erosion in recent years, but that erosion results from nearby overdevelopment — something more development is unlikely to remedy — and a coalition of park users and neighborhood supporters have been working closely with the city on implementing plans to finish those repairs without further damaging the park.

In an era when cities as diverse as Houston, Los Angeles and Munich are investing millions to restore their urban rivers to some semblance of their natural condition, Austin already has such a rare bounty in the Colorado River and the wild riverfront parks like Roy Guerrero that protect it. One can only hope that Austin will not desecrate this precious community resource by selling it out to private corporate interests.

We should protect it and all our parklands as they were designed by those who preceded us: to be enjoyed by generations to come.

Brown is a co-founder of Friends of the Colorado, a member of the River Bluff Neighborhood Association, and a board member of Ecology Action.

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