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Environmental mess

Dougherty Arts Center demolition inevitable: Austin may not fund a new facility

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Young dancers from Dance Discovery showed up to support full
funding for rebuilding the Dougherty.
Photo by Michelle Denny
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The front of the Naval Reserve Center at 1110 Barton Springs Rd., now the Dougherty Arts Center. Photo by Douglas Neal
Austin Photo Set: News_Marshall_dougherty arts center_may 2012_dancers
Austin Photo Set: News_Marshall_dougherty arts center_may 2012_building2
Austin Photo Set: News_Marshall_dougherty arts center_may 2012_exterior now

The Dougherty Arts Center (better known as "The DAC") could be the next Austin landmark to face the wrecking ball. And it's going to happen sooner, rather than later.

What is not yet clear is whether the city will support rebuilding the popular hub, either at its current location — a long shot due to serious environmental problems — or somewhere else, taking a decades-old resource out of central Austin.

The DAC is just on the 78704 side of Lady Bird Lake, on Barton Springs road between the old Union Pacific railroad tracks and the new Palmer Events Center. Originally built as a U.S. Marine Corps and Navy Reserve facility back in the 1940s, the building is like thousands of other prefabricated, metal boxes built for the military immediately following WWII — cramped and not especially attractive.

 The Dougherty Arts Center's fatal flaws aren't about the cramped quarters; they're about safety. 

But after the city took it over in 1978, the surrounding community made the most of the space, naming it for philanthropist and former Junior League of Austin president Mary Ireland Graves Dougherty and augmenting the old training center with studio and gallery space.

Just a few years after the abandoned National Guard armory down the street was reborn as the Armadillo World Headquarters, the postwar Naval Reserve building became a 26,200 square-foot community arts center with a 150-seat auditorium where the drill hall used to be.

If someone made a list of every class, performance, camp and concert that has taken place here over the years, it wouldn't fit into one of the tiny upstairs offices.

But the Dougherty Arts Center's fatal flaws aren't about the cramped quarters; they're about safety.

A 2009 State of the Environment study produced by the City of Austin reported there are more than 70 known abandoned landfills in and around the city.

One of them is directly under the Dougherty Arts Center.

It was discovered six years ago, when a construction crew laying sewer lines for Butler Park unearthed a pit, 100 feet by 200 feet, buried under the DAC and under the playground that used to be on the property. The Public Works Department said there was lead present in the pit, but not in the soil around it. The Austin Parks and Recreation Department (PARD) added a fabric barrier and a layer of mulch, got rid of the playground, and hoped for the best.

Making matters worse, the building is on land that has been designated by The Federal Emergency Management Agency as a 25-year flood plain. Nothing can be built there without being built high enough to be out of what FEMA considers to be harm's way, which (along with the soil remediation that the newly-discovered landfill requires), makes rebuilding at the site a lot more expensive.

So why not just keep things as they are? Unfortunately, it seems that keeping kids from digging in the dirt and mopping up wet floors every two and a half decades aren't the only problems with the site.

 "Hopefully the Environmental Protection Agency doesn't kick us out of the building until that process is done, so we don't we have any interruption of programs." 

An "Existing Conditions Assessment" prepared for PARD in 2010 includes a pretty scary list that includes:

  • no fire sprinklers in the main gallery
  • wainscoting, bricks and tiles thought to contain asbestos are found throughout the building
  • some pipes are painted with lead primer
  • roofs have "outlived their serviceable life years ago and require replacement as soon as possible"
  • bathrooms are not compliant with Americans with Disability Act requirements
  • an uneven foundation slab
  • a propensity toward rodent infestation

The report, prepared by local architects, engineers and consultants (including Structures, Enoctech and Amtech Building Sciences), states that rehabilitation of the current building would cost $6.9 million. That is more costly than a new building at the same location which would cost $6.6 million.

Michelle Denny owns Dance Discovery, which offers classes for children and hosts recitals at the DAC. Denny established a Save the Dougherty Arts Center Facebook page and an online petition to rally support for the endangered gathering place.

"We have about 24 day cares participating (in dance programs)," said Denny. "At the DAC, these kids get to have their recitals on a stage, with an audience. A lot of those families couldn't afford to have a dance recital at other places.

"It's an affordable venue where artists can show their work or have a theater or dance production, and it's central and affordable. It's open to anyone, and it's downtown."

Denny wants to see the city allocate funds to relocate and rebuild. Austin's Bond Election Advisory Task Force, the group responsible for shaping proposals into a comprehensive bond package to go before voters in November, has set aside $2 million for the DAC — less than a third of what the 2010 report estimated a new facility would cost.

PARD would use the $2 million to develop an existing facility somewhere that can take on some of the DAC programming and for "front end development" of a new site.

Denny has joined parents and kids who use the DAC at task force meetings to say they want the DAC rebuilt in the same area, as soon as possible.

"They don't understand how immediate the need is to get the kids out of this toxic situation. They've put forward $2 million for planning, but we need to find a place right now," Denny said. "Hopefully the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) doesn't kick us out of the building until that process is done, so we don't we have any interruption of programs."

Asked whether he expects the DAC to be condemned by local authorities or by the EPA, Marty Stump, a project management supervisor with the parks department said, "We have not heard that, as a department. We feel comfortable that the building is safe for current use."

He says air quality tests have shown that the landfill does not pose an immediate threat. He also says the city continually works with engineers and consultants to ensure compliance. Parents and other DAC users are notified of ongoing issues and repairs.

Although emergency structural repairs and code compliance issues will continue to be addressed on a per-case basis as they crop up — and they often do — Stump says the current building can't conceivably be expected to continue operating much longer.

"At some point you've got to ask the question, is that a prudent use of funds?"

Stump says $8.3 million is the current estimate for building an improved facility at the current site. He says the $2 million currently earmarked in the bonds package was reduced from an initial $4 million request that would have been used to "find and adapt an existing facility to take on current programing" and explore whether a "partnering opportunity with an outside agency" could be achieved.

The $2 million figure isn't set in stone, and November is still a long way off. Stump says he still has hope that November's bond election will include full funding for a replacement facility.

"Ideally it would be a building that we could design," he says, noting that the current building, which was never meant for 65 years of heavy use by such a large population, is "busting at the seams." Stump hopes a building can be built that will accommodate current need and future growth.

The final bonds task force meeting is at 6:00 p.m. on Thursday, May 17, in the Boards and Commissions Room at City Hall. Members will vote on their final recommendations. [Editors note: The bonds task force meeting was cancelled late Tuesday.] The bond package now stands at around $400 million, reduced from $1.3 billion in proposals put forth last year.

With the likelihood of the bond package shrinking again this week — and potentially again between now and Election Day — full funding for a future DAC facility is looking like a budgetary hot potato getting tossed into the lap of the private sector.

An analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, Don Baylor, is among the citizens on the Parks and Open Space Committee of the bond task force. He says the community's support and enthusiasm for the DAC might be best leveraged toward raising money from the private sector.

Baylor points to the Zach Theatre, which is constructing the $22 million Topfer Theatre with a combination of money approved in the 2006 bond election and contributions from patrons and business donors.

The difference is that as a city-owned entity, the DAC can't solicit contributions the same way a 501(c)(3) charitable organization can. But a "friends" group could. The Norwood Park Foundation, for example, was established this year as a public/nonprofit partnership to restore the Norwood house, a 90-year-old historic home overlooking Lady Bird Lake next to I-35.

In addition, groups such as The Bull Creek Foundation, Friends of Barton Springs Pool and The Greenbelt Guardians use The Austin Parks Foundation as a charitable umbrella for their fundraising efforts.

"That's a direction that PARD is looking toward more and more often," Stump explained. "We need private sector partners."

Leslie Pool, another member the bonds task force, says the current $2 million recommendation her group will vote on this week is "a vote of confidence to see that the master planning process moves forward on this important project."

"We expressly want the city to continue all programming at the current DAC location, just as we want programs at the Montopolis Recreation Center to continue while a new facility is built there," Pool said. "The programs are too important to our community to have any lapse or gaps occur."

For now, there doesn't seem to be a clear course of action or a timeline on what will happen. One thing that seems clear is that the Dougherty Arts Center that Austin has loved since the 1970s will not be around for much longer.

"We were told by city staff that rebuilding on the same site was not feasible," Baylor said. "The only other use for that site might be a parking garage, given the environmental issues and the lack of parking in that area."

One DAC parent, Jennifer Hoskins, says people from all over Austin (not just south and central) depend on the DAC being where it is.

Her daughter is in Creativity Club, a program in which kids from Zilker and Mathews elementary schools are taken to the DAC after school.

"Last week, they made their own kites and were able to try them out next door in Butler Park," Hoskins said. "(This) is exactly why I chose to raise my family in Austin. As a parent, it is an amazing feeling to know that your child is going to the best place possible.

"If they rebuild elsewhere, then they will probably provide the pick-up program and/or on-site program for schools that are near (the new location). If Zilker is not one of those schools, I will have to find another after-school program."

Hoskins says parents lined up for more than three hours before the doors opened when summer camp registration took place last month. They waited outside in camping chairs before the sun was up.

Once the doors close for good, it won't be due to a lack demand for the programs, it will be because the building was loved to death.

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