Representatives of Austin’s Parks and Recreation Dept. (PARD) met at Mabel Davis Park on April 10 to talk with residents about a 1.6-acre fenced off-leash area (OLA) that has been proposed for the southwest corner of the park.
This is a follow-up to two citizen-input meetings held in June and November 2011. The OLA was later approved by the Austin Parks & Recreation Board on Feb. 28, but Austin City Council ruled on April 5 that changes to uses of Mabel Davis Park and Yett Creek Park must be submitted for Council approval.
Though the OLA has some support within the neighborhood, the residents who attended the April 10 meeting voiced concerns about an OLA at this site. One of the most common concerns is how heavy use by dogs will affect water quality in the Country Club Creek watershed, because the creek’s headwaters are in a pond about 100 feet downhill from the proposed OLA. Another concern is that an OLA ranked low in a list of desired park amenities compiled during the planning process for the East Riverside-Oltorf Combined Neighborhood Plan, finalized in 2006. Some residents have asked that other amenities that ranked higher be tackled first. Other residents who have been working to add amenities to the park, such as a trail around the pond, have suggested integrating those into the OLA project.
As part of its response, PARD staff offered to survey about 18,000 people in this part of Southeast Austin about whether they want an OLA at Mabel Davis. As a 50-acre district park, Mabel Davis serves more people than just the neighborhoods that surround it, and a survey would include not only residents in the Ben White-Oltorf area, where the park is, but also the Oltorf-Riverside area. It’s unclear at this point whether a survey is in the works.
The department also explained its rationale for proposing an OLA at Mabel Davis Park. Because the park was built over an old landfill contaminated by illegally dumped pesticides and heavy metals, any future use must not compromise a protective clay cap over the contaminated fill. The southwest corner cannot even be watered with sprinklers. PARD has been working with the Watershed Protection Department on its design for the OLA, which is one of the few amenities that could be allowed under those limitations, staff said. The project is also part of an initiative to bring more dog facilities to Austin parks. Only two of 11 existing OLAs are east of I-35, and Mabel Davis Park is located near thousands of apartment dwellers who do not have areas where they can exercise or play with a dog off-leash.
According to attendees, the discussion didn’t cover much new ground or offer any compromises. But it did achieve a few things: Residents had advance notice of the meeting, they had a chance to air their opinions and get some feedback, and the meeting was accessible for residents because it was held at the park.
Displeasure that residents have voiced over the proposed OLA has been as much about the way the process has been handled as about the OLA itself. Meetings have left many with the impression that PARD decided to install an off-leash area at Mabel Davis Park, then held a series of public meetings merely as a formality to allow it to move forward with its plans. Others say PARD did not do enough to notify them of past meetings, especially people who had asked to be involved in the process and had submitted contact information. PARD representatives say the department followed its usual procedures to announce meetings, generally through the city website or public service announcements. But finding those announcements requires some effort or luck for members of the public.
PARD staff also said the department notified neighborhood associations in the 78741 ZIP code that are registered with the city. You can see a list of registered neighborhood associations and their representatives at the City of Austin Community Registry.
Last week, PARD released notes from the meeting, including comments from attendees and the department’s response. You can read those here.
How do you feel about the off-leash area? You can voice your support, opposition or suggestions by sending e-mail to MabelDavisParkOffLea@austintexas.gov. Send postal mail to:
Austin Parks and Recreation Department
Planning and Development Division
919 West 28 1/2 Street
Austin, Texas 78705