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Hackles raised as changes planned for area around Barton Springs Pool

Sarah Coppola
Austin Parks Department The city's planned renovations to Barton Springs Pool include a larger, air-conditioned ticket booth to replace the existing one.

City of Austin parks officials are putting the finishing touches on the designs for several changes to the grounds of Barton Springs Pool that were envisioned in a 2009 master plan.

But many of the projects — including a fence, entrance gate, ticket booth and access path on the pool's south side — are being decried by environmental activists and regular pool visitors who say the changes would overdevelop the iconic swimming hole.

"The south side is laid-back and minimal, like a swim in the creek, and people want to keep it that way," said Bill Bunch of the Save Our Springs Alliance. "Yet because there's a pot of money for pool improvements, consultants and staff envision a big makeover into something like a country club."

But Robin Cravey, founder of the group Friends of Barton Springs Pool, said the grounds have been loved to death by more than 700,000 annual visitors.

"The whole pool has been neglected, the south side in particular, and these improvements are long overdue," he said. "It's a glorious work of nature that should be set off by grounds and facilities that are equal to it."

The debate, which has spilled over recently into contentious public meetings, showcases the fierce feelings Austinites have for the pool, which is home to a rare salamander species. It also reflects the complex politics of the place.

The nonprofit Friends of Barton Springs Pool was formed in 2006 to recruit volunteers to help clean the pool and maintain the grounds. That group has worked closely with city parks staffers and has generally supported making the changes described in the master plan.

But the Friends have butted heads with daily Barton Springs swimmers and members of the Save Our Springs Alliance, many of whom would prefer that the grounds stay exactly as is — or that the city spend money on better basic pool upkeep or to protect parcels of land upstream that affect the water's health and clarity.

The debate stretches back to 2007, when the city began crafting what became a 300-plus-page plan for Barton Springs that addresses everything from water quality to lawn care. In 2009, the City Council OK'd the plan and had already agreed to set aside $6.2 million to pay for smaller projects that could be finished in the short term. The money comes from certificates of obligation, a form of debt that doesn't require voter approval.

The parks department has spent $2.7 million to complete a few of the short-term projects, such as renovating the north-side bathhouse and removing gravel dumped in the pool's deep end by years of flood events. But many other projects have lurched through more than three years of planning, design, revisions and public meetings.

Parks officials hope to begin the grounds projects — which are expected to cost $2.6 million total — next fall, but first the designs must be reviewed and OK'd by city boards and the City Council this year, said Tom Nelson, a parks department division manager.

Work on a separate, larger project to repair a flood-control tunnel at the pool is slated to start this fall. Swimming will be restricted to the middle and deep end from early October to late November, when the city will fully close the pool through late February to finish the work.

To date, the parks department has paid the planning and landscape design firm Larson Burns & Smith $273,000 of a $314,000 contract to design some of the grounds projects. The plans call for burying overhead power lines at the pool, installing a new irrigation system, planting native plants and trees, and protecting the roots of large pecan trees near the north-side concession area by adding limestone blocks around them that will double as seating.

But the projects causing the biggest stir are planned for the pool's south side.

A concrete path down to the pool accented by native plants would be built in the woods behind the diving board.

There is a path on the pool's north side that is accessible to people with disabilities, but there's no easy way for disabled or older visitors or parents with baby strollers to go up and down the south hillside, parks officials said.

The plans include moving back the south-side fence to make room for the new path and to bring large trees and more lawn inside the pool grounds.

The current chain-link fence, which is topped with barbed wire, would be replaced with either a wrought-iron or wire-mesh design. That new fencing could potentially be added all around the pool.

The dirt parking lot on the south side might be paved and a new entrance gate built, possibly a wrought-iron design flanked by limestone pillars. A slightly bigger ticket booth would replace the small 1970s model, which has no air conditioning for ticket- taking staffers.

A sculpture commissioned by the city's Art in Public Places program from Austin artist Hawkeye Glenn was supposed to be installed on the south side, but after activists complained, parks officials now plan to put it somewhere outside the pool grounds. Glenn is still working on the design, Nelson said.

Karen Kreps, a Web designer and daily Barton Springs swimmer, said the plans for the south side are overdone and unnecessary. There is already a suitable disabled-accessible path on the north side, she said, and the fence designs would be difficult to see through, closing off the pool visually as well as physically.

"I think they are terrible ideas. None of them should happen," she said. "It's a naturally occurring pool, and we should be able to experience that instead of man-made edifices."

Dan Crow, an attorney and frequent swimmer, supports the disabled-accessible path but objects to other south-side ideas, saying they don't jibe with the vision laid out in the master plan.

One page of the plan says: "The idea that the feel of the south side should be different and more casual than the north side should continue to be appreciated and preserved. ... It should always be mellower, quieter and feel somehow more private."

However, the plan also says that bigger projects that the parks department currently has no money for and hasn't begun designing, such as building restrooms and dressing facilities on the south side, would be "reasonable" and "consistent with good park management practices."

Hill Abell, a member of the city's parks board and of a committee that has been reviewing the grounds plans, said he's not wedded to particular designs or materials but thinks features like the new fence, ticket booth and accessible path are needed.

"A gate and stone columns will call out what an important place you're about to enter. Today we have a galvanized fence with barbed wire on top. I don't think that's worthy of the crown jewel of Austin's parks system," he said.

Environmental board member Mary Ann Neely, also a member of the review committee, said she sees the projects as a form of basic maintenance.

"There hasn't been enough money put in at Barton Springs to make it a place that reflects the beauty of the pool," she said. "There are some who don't want anything new and think (features like) a barbed-wire fence are OK, but Barton Springs deserves better."

Contact Sarah Coppola at 912-2939

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