A new city park and new public art pieces could be coming to Leander's Old Town district in the near future.
But the proposed park will depend on how the city chooses to tackle the expected need to expand or move Leander City Hall to meet the city's rapid population growth.
The Leander City Council voted 5-to-1 Thursday, Nov. 11, to direct city staff to seek Request for Qualifications for an entity to develop and design a proposed "Old Town Park, which would occupy the 0.82-acres behind Leander City Hall where the city holds the Old Town Street Festival and the Leander Christmas Festival are traditionally held each year.
After proposals are gathered, the council will vote at a future meeting whether to accept a finalist for the project and whether to allocate funds for a final design.
The council also voted 5-to-1 to approve a non-binding resolution declaring their intent to potentially reimburse any future cost incurred developing Old Town and the planned, unrelated stage at Lakewood Park by drawing from the city's General Obligation Park Bonds.
The council is legally requires to declare this intent ahead of incurring the expenses in order to have the option to reimburse them. The resolution is non-binding, so the council is not required to use the bond funds and may chose not to use them if they fee like it at a later time. The council will have three years after the cost incurred to make the decision.
Council member Christine Sederquist, who voted against both items, objected to using existing Park Bonds to finance a park that wasn't on the original ballot's narrow language as "a betrayal of voters' intent." She said the voters did not give the city permission to use these funds for this park.
The push for redeveloping the Old Town District into "a major destination that brings people to Leander" has been a long-time goal of Leander Mayor Troy Hill.
He has also pushed for bringing public art and other improvements to the district to help make it an art district that attracts people's attention. He compared his vision to creating an area like Rainey Street in downtown Austin.
The council voted on Oct. 8 to shift 15 percent of all funds it receives from multi-family developments for fee-in-lieu of building parkland to the city's Public Arts fund, adding thousands of dollars annually for public art. However, since the funding came from parkland dedication fees, it can only fund public art in city parks.
If the council establishes a park in the Old Town District, the change will allow them to legally use those diverted funds in that area.
Council member Jason Shaw, who voted for both items, and Sederquist, who voted against them, argued the council should have a clear idea of its long-term plans for where City Hall will be located before finalizing park plans.
Shaw said he agrees with seeking an RFQ to determine possible designs and options for a park but argued "we need to be smart about this because the city has made some very unwise choices in the past."
"It's not that we're not going to do it. Let's just spend some time and make sure we have the data points," Shaw said.
Sederquist argued the city's plans has always been to use the proposed park space to build additional building when the city staff sizes outgrow the current City Hall buildings.
Hill has pushed for a plan to move and centralize City Hall and other department buildings into a new location in the planned Northline development to compliment its growth and future importance to the city.
Sederquist argued that even if they settle on Northline as a new location, the move is still "years and millions of dollars away." She questioned what they will do in the meantime, particularly given their shared concerns about the city's debt and tight budget.
"I think the responsible thing to do is plan for our future first. A park is nice but where are we going to have our staff in 2 years when we outgrow every place we have?" Sederquist asked.
She said they could put off the plan for a few years until they finalize a decision and still make non-permanent beautification improvements to the area to benefit Old Town.
Hill retorted that the current location is not sustainable regardless of where City Hall moves because the city's improvements to the district have eliminated all the parking for the area.
"There are very few things we do that can directly effect economic income coming into the city...We don't have the ability to affect what Northline turns out to be. We do have the ability to affect what Old Town is," Hill said. "I think we talked about (revitalizing Old Town) for so long and nothing ever happened. If it's going to happen, it needs to happen now."
When asked why developing the park was too urgent to wait for City Hall plans to be finalized, Hill said he doesn't want to lose their momentum with Old Town, and that he believes, given the city's track record, that nothing will end up getting done if they don't act soon.
He also argued the park could provide a foundation for the redevelopment by givig people another reason to spend more time in the district, increasing their chances of visiting the local business.
In particular, Hill said he is specifically focused on ensuring AJ's Bar and Grill, the newest restaurant to open in the district, survives it's first year. He argue that AJ's remaining open is essentially to proving to other prospective restaurants and businesses that it's worth the risk of open in the Old Town district.