Parkland Accessibility

At AURA, we’re focused on building an Austin for Everyone through abundant housing and better public transportation.  Part of our platform calls for better utilizing our public parks by locating more housing near them – and make better child-friendly urban spaces.  With that in mind, we have some concerns about agenda item 58 on this week’s Council agenda.  

The item calls for increasing the cost of parkland dedication fees for new housing, based on a “parks per person” metric.  This metric seems to turns good park policy on its head.  The best parks in the world are ones that people go to, are well-maintained, and are accessible.  The Trust for Public Land’s 2015 City Park report rates cities on a number of metrics, including the number of parks per person (the metric used in the parkland dedication fee proposal) and accessibility to parks.  Austin has an excellent ratio of parks per person – 30.6 acres per 1,000 people.  However, only 48% of our population can get to a park in a ten minute walk.  Fees like the parkland dedication fee can be a useful tool, but we need to think about what we’re trying to get out of it.

In fact, the parkland dedication fee has several restrictions on its use.  PARD must spend the money in the area that the fee was collected from, the fee can’t be used for ongoing operations and maintenance of parks, and can’t be used to implement the city’s Park Master Plan.  For citations to prove these points, see the budget RFI’s from prior Councilmembers MartinezMorrison, and Spelmanon this very topic.  The Parkland dedication fee can only be used for new parkland acquisition and new infrastructure at parks.  When we are already having a difficult time keeping pools open in the summer and funding our existing parks, and are making budget tradeoffs to keep them funded, building up a warchest that must be spent on new parkland without a mechanism to fund ongoing operations and maintenance will create a future unfunded mandate for Council – and more hard choices about whether we can maintain our pools.  In a prior budget discussion, Mayor Pro Tem Cole said “I think the primary problem we have with our parks now is maintenance.  We’re just not able to keep them up.”

There is another choice: by allowing more multifamily housing near underutilized parks (and schools), we can increase the tax base of the city to help fund the ongoing operations of existing parks while making sure that our parks become great ones – where families take their kids because it’s a short walk from home.  More multifamily housing has a higher tax base benefit and could be a tool to help deal with our housing crisis in Austin.

Unfortunately, the proposed park land dedication fee actually creates an opposite incentive.  Although the fee is lower for higher density, it doesn’t account for the fact that higher density means more people per acre, so the cost for a higher density project is much higher than single family homes.  This creates a disincentive for the kinds of development that we need to keep our existing parks funded – the exact opposite of what we need.

The park land dedication fee, park policy, and the way to fund our parks and make them more useful for more people is something that takes careful effort and thought.  We encourage the city council to take it’s time and consider the full range of related issues before passing a policy that could have some unintended consequences.