The contentious fight over Auditorium Shores may finally be coming to an end. On Tuesday, December 10, the Parks and Recreation Department will present its final recommendations to lawmakers.
Two days later, on December 12, Austin City Council is scheduled vote on the plan to revamp the current Auditorium Shores with a sustainable landscape design, a new dog park, shoreline improvements — and the construction of a "high durability turfgrass" event lawn.
As you've probably read, this new plan (which being funded by a multimillion-dollar donation from C3 Presents) would eliminate a large chunk (about 80 percent) of the current off-leash dog park. While this is certainly an affront to many of Austin's dog owners (myself excluded — my dog would run to San Antonio without stopping if I let him off the leash), this is something that should concern every Austinite.
The discussion has been framed as a fight over a dog park when in fact it is a fight over whether or not corporate interests should dictate how the rest of the city gets to use our public spaces.
Since 2006, C3 Presents, the company that puts on Austin City Limits and the Austin Food & Wine Festival and is the exclusive ticketing agency for (among others) Stubbs, La Zona Rosa, Emo's and Austin Music Hall, has donated a total of $5 million to the Auditorium Shores renovation, according to the City of Austin.
As a company, C3 is responsible for generating hundreds of millions of dollars every year for the city ($100 million dollars during ACL alone) and employing hundreds of people. The company owns Emo's as well as a primary share of Front Gate Tickets and has had an integral role in turning Austin from a sleepy music town to an international tourist destination that plays host to everyone and everything from Paul McCartney to your sister-in-law's bachelorette party.
With that economic impact comes political sway. Austinites are already cast out of Zilker Park for weeks each fall in preparation for ACL. (These closures came with a $2.5 million donation from C3 to renovate Zilker's Great Lawn and a fawning press release from the City of Austin.) The latest plan for Auditorium Shores doesn't just make the dog park smaller; it shuts down the area for a year during renovations and turns another multiuse public space into a music venue.
This is a sentiment echoed by the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association, who said in a December 6 letter to the City Council,
"Auditorium Shores is a Major public park and a Minor venue site. It is not the other way around; a Major Event venue that has a Minor as a public park and that is available to the general public only when events (many of which are private and/or require the park to be fenced off from the general public) are not occupying that public space. The current 25-event-day maximum is meant to ensure that Auditorium Shores keeps the identity of a Major public park and balance of uses intact."
Over the past few months, C3 has remained pretty quiet on the subject. Instead, it has been the city that has insisted that the $3.5 million dollar reimbursement promised by C3 has no sway over the PARD's plan to revamp the Shores. But in a December 8 investigative article in the Austin American-Statesman, journalist Sarah Coppola maintains that isn't the whole truth.
In one of the few mentions of C3, parks assistant director Jesse Vargas wrote to colleagues on March 5: “Spoke with Charlie [Jones from C3] — he’s ok with one-year shutdown [of the shores for the renovations] but it took a little persuading. … He is most concerned about dog traffic and asked that we move on this soon — before food and wine fest.”
As Austin battles every day to maintain our identity despite massive growth, these discussions are going to become a lot more common, and come with even bigger stakes.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the renovation of Auditorium Shores is that Mayor Lee Leffingwell and the City Council are heading into this vote with little input from the public. According to the Statesman, while the initial plan was being developed in the spring of 2013, only a select group of "stakeholders" were asked for input. It wasn't until the plan was made public that organizations including Austin Pets Alive!, Friends of Austin Dog Parks and the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association got involved, staging protests, creating petitions and generating publicity.
It was precisely because of those organizations' involvement that the discussion was framed as a fight over a dog park, when in fact it is a fight over whether or not corporate interests should dictate how the rest of the city gets to use our public spaces. The city of Austin can claim that C3's multimillion-dollar donation has little influence on the park's design, but that's seems a hard pill to swallow. While the protesting organizations should be lauded for bringing attention to the issue, this is not about dogs. This is about democracy. The pooches are just innocent bystanders.
As Austin battles every day to maintain its identity despite massive growth, these discussions are going to become a lot more common and come with even bigger stakes. We may have already turned into a world-class destination, one capable of hosting Descendents one weekend and European millionaires the next, but it's imperative that we refrain from letting a single corporation call the shots about arguably one of the biggest pieces of Austin's publicly owned real estate.
After all, it's the citizens that make Austin a great city — not the turfgrass.
The Parks and Recreation Department will present its final plan tonight at 6 pm at Austin City Hall. You can see how members of City Council have previously voted on this issue here. You can contact your city council members and Mayor Leffingwell to show your support or voice your outrage via the contact information here.