Grumet: Can Waller Creek parks close the gap between haves, have-nots?

Look past the abundant pecan trees, the grassy slopes, the inviting trails and the open vistas, and you’ll find the most beautiful thing about city parks is the mix of Austinites sharing the space with you.

People of all ages, backgrounds and interests are playing and unwinding on land that belongs to all of us.

Or at least, it’s supposed to.

Some residents rightly grow resentful when it feels like a public space, which we all pay for, is serving a select group. It’s not surprising that tension surfaced last week as city leaders talked about dedicating $110 million in tax revenue over the next few decades to the Waller Creek chain of parks along the eastern edge of downtown.

I’m a big fan of parks, particularly central city ones that breathe life into what could otherwise be a dreary concrete jungle. With proper tending, the Waller Creek chain of parks will transform a littered waterway into a stunning downtown oasis.

But $110 million is a lot of money. We need to be mindful of who’s paying, who’s benefiting and who’s overlooked.

The plans call for restoring and improving green spaces along Waller Creek from Waterloo Park, near Trinity and 12th streets, down to Lady Bird Lake, near Red River Street. The effort is finally moving forward now that the Waller Creek tunnel, a massive drainage project, has lifted the surrounding blocks out of the flood plain.

RELATED: Waller Creek Tunnel works, despite fight over construction flaws

“I’m not sure that this council will do anything that is remembered 150 years from now other than the vote that we’re just about to take,” Mayor Steve Adler said last Thursday, before the City Council unanimously approved funding for the project.

That vote drew applause from the civic activists who have worked for years to bring this vision to life.

It’s important to note that the nonprofit Waller Creek Conservancy hopes to raise $203 million from private donors for the project, in addition to the $110 million coming from the Waller Creek taxing district.

Properties along the downtown stretch of Waller Creek were placed in that district in 2008, and the extra taxes they paid as their properties increased in value went toward construction of the tunnel. The council’s vote last Thursday extended the life of that district from 2028 to 2041 and allowed for those extra tax dollars to flow toward the chain of parks.

COMMENTARY: Legal dispute has no impact on Waller Creek development

Now you might argue that means the people closest to the Waller Creek parks, the people most likely to use them, are paying for them. But that $110 million comes from city tax revenue that would normally flow into the general fund, where it could go toward other parks around Austin.

Critics noted dollars going to Waller Creek represent dollars not available to fix city swimming pools, some of which will likely close due to disrepair, as well as dollars not going to other long-neglected parks, such as Walter E. Long Metropolitan Park in far East Austin.

Peter Mullan, who chairs the Waller Creek Conservancy, described the chain of parks as “a project for all of Austin,” creating a gathering place “where you meet friends and family, but also a place where you mingle with people who you don’t know, who are not like you necessarily, but with whom you share a common bond as part of a larger community.”

RELATED: Downtown’s Waller Creek oasis begins with Waterloo Park improvements

He’s described the spirit of public space perfectly. But when you think about the reality of downtown parking and congestion, these particular parks are most likely to serve those of us who live or work within walking or biking distance of them. By and large, those who can afford to live downtown are among the most affluent residents in the city.

If done right, however, the Waller Creek project could also help some of the poorest in our city, those who live in the homeless encampments along the waterway. The parks project will bring a practical push to the longstanding but underfunded moral imperative to provide these residents with more dignified housing options.

”Our mutual success is important,” Caritas executive director Jo Kathryn Quinn told council members. “If the Waller Creek Conservancy is going to protect the creek, then Caritas of Austin must have the resources that we need to end homelessness. The creek cannot be restored until we control the human impact that is hurting the creek, making the creek unhealthy.”

RELATED: Austin ‘downtown puzzle’ plan to be studied in pieces

The Waller Creek parks decision was bound to help some residents more than others. Still, former council member, state representative nominee and longtime Waller Creek champion Sheryl Cole said she felt “a special sort of punch in the heart” when critics pointed to the constituencies left out in the cold. For instance, the Mexican American Cultural Center, which sits near the mouth of Waller Creek, wants its voice included as plans move forward.

It’s not too late for the council to take a closer look at Cole’s suggestion to add seats to the Waller Creek Local Government Corp., the entity overseeing the use of taxpayer dollars on the project, to include representatives of homeless, environmental and cultural organizations, among others. By necessity, the Conservancy is reaching out to Austin’s wealthiest to contribute to the $203 million private fundraising goal; the city needs to ensure that other interests have a voice as the project unfolds.

Cole said it best: “If the whole city isn’t feeling it, then we have a challenge and we must address that.”

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