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The University of Texas at Austin

Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs

LBJ Alums Working to Make Austin Park a Reality

Doug Whitworth
Doug Whitworth (M.P.Aff. 2005)

There are many things to value in a public affairs education, not the least of which are the skills it provides in terms of community involvement and accomplishment.

A perfect example is the work being done by a handful of Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs alumni who are revitalizing Gus Garcia City Park and Recreation Center for a growing working-class neighborhood in northeast Austin.

The recreation center and park are named in honor of former Austin mayor and city councilmember Gus Garcia and were intended to serve as a hub for City services and a centerpiece of a community that is richly diverse. Many residents are recent immigrants to America, and multiple languages can be heard in the neighborhoods. This park will provide a space for many people, especially those in multifamily dwellings, to interact with one another.

The design for the facility could include a pavilion capable of seating a minimum of 200; picnic tables for weddings, quinceaneras, and birthdays; a playground; swimming pool; a hike-and-bike trail; a butterfly garden; and a leash-free, dog-friendly area—not to mention possible sports fields for soccer, football, baseball and tennis.

Unfortunately, even though funding for the park and recreation center were part of a 1998 bond election package, the $5.5 million the city budgeted to fund both the park and a recreation center were insufficient. Once contractor bids started coming in they were all much higher than the projections made for the 1998 bond proposal. By the time the city broke ground for the park in October of 2007, the estimated costs had grown to $6.5 million for the recreation center alone, with nothing remaining to develop the surrounding 47 acres of parkland already been purchased.

Gus Garcia
Former Austin Mayor Gus Garcia

Enter a handful of LBJ School alumni who saw the potential to turn the project around—particularly Doug Whitworth, from the Class of 2005.

"This park would be the only real park in northeast Austin, an area that is growing quickly and is very diverse. It will allow people from multiple generations and cultures come together to celebrate family events such as birthdays or quinceaneras while enjoying the outdoors. Many families already do so in Austin in places such as Bartholomew Park off of East 51st Street or Little Stacy Park in south Austin."

Whitworth, who works for the City of Austin's Office of the Auditor, is volunteering his time to work on the development of Gus Garcia Park. He said he sees the project as a hobby that allows him to give back to the community. He is being joined by Austin City Councilmember Brewster McCracken and Austin Parks and Recreation Board Member Hector Ortiz, alums from the LBJ class of 1995, in working on the project as well. As elected officials, both McCracken and Ortiz are providing needed advice on shepherding the project through the planning process at the City of Austin.

The group has joined with some local emerging architects who are pursuing their license to create the Friends of Gus Garcia Park, part of the Austin Parks Foundation, a non-profit umbrella organization, which has organized a contest for architects at the start of their career with the help of several other organizations—American Institute of Architects' Austin chapter, the Austin Parks Foundation, and Graeber, Simmons & Cowan. The Call for Proposals for the contest are available on the web site at http://gusgarciapark.org/.

Groundbreaking for Gus Garcia Park
Groundbreaking ceremony for Gus Garcia Park

The three top teams or individuals will be announced on April 30 but the deadline for registration is February 14. They will be awarded cash prizes of up to $1,000 and given the chance to present their designs at a community meeting. A master plan will then be developed based on or inspired by the ideas of the contest participants.

Once a master plan is in place, the Friends of Gus Garcia Park will seek funding from private and public sources. Samsung and D.R. Horton have already indicated their interest in the park. The group will also apply for an urban trail grant from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. By next fall, the group hopes to be ready to submit proposals to the Austin City Council.

Whitworth said that his experience at the LBJ School has made it easier to achieve his goals for the park.

"I've been able to put many of the skills that I learned at the LBJ School into practice during this process, the most significant being the ability to lead multiple teams of people with diverse backgrounds and skill sets while working collaboratively towards a common goal," he said. "I've created workgroups with architects, neighborhood community leaders, and elected officials in order to work every angle of this project."

For more information, visit www.gusgarciapark.org.

- Kim Loop