AUSTIN -- Controversial changes to Auditorium Shores were approved this week, making for a much smaller off-leash dog park. While some trail users are happy about the plan, many dog owners are in protest.
Tuesday night people packed into and outside of Austin City Hall to give public comment before the Parks and Recreation Board voted to approve the $3.5 million renovation design plan for Auditorium Shores.
"[The park] is in poor condition due to years of park use by various user groups," said Marty Stump with the Parks and Recreation Department.
The big issue among opponents is that the plan limits the off-leash dog area to 4.7 acres on the west side. Dogs will be allowed on leash in some areas, but banned from the large event area. Currently, dogs can roam free on all 18 acres.
"It is a disaster. It is in bad shape and our biggest concern is safety," said Colin Wallace, executive director for the Austin Parks Foundation. "And as much as some people don't want to admit it, there are real safety issues on that trial where dogs and runners and cyclist intersect."
"We've had some close calls," said Melissa Barry, speaking about her experiences with her young daughter in the park. "And it's been scary for me so I just decided we're not going to take her down there anymore."
But opponents said the plan is simply unfair.
"We need to ensure that Austin taxpayers are influencing the design in the off-leash usage and not C3," said one woman who signed up to speak.
"The people that have moved into downtown Austin, who are the ones who are using the park, are people that are dog owners. We've built condos and we've built residences for urban dwellers, most of whom don't have children," said Marjorie Hook.
More than 80 people signed up to speak. About 20 got the chance. For nearly an hour and a half, people voiced their opinions before the board voted.
Board Chair Jane Rivera added a recommendation that the council consider changing the code to require new or renovated high rises built in downtown include dog areas for residents. The board members approved that addition and approved the plan.
On any given day, dogs run free at Auditorium Shores.
"It's just packed. Always a lot of people here," said dog owner Nicholas Hess. "I just don't think there will be enough room for as many dogs as come out here, on weekends in particular. I just don't think it's going to work."
"She gets a chance to run, chase the ball, stuff she can't do being on a leash," said dog owner Leslie Hines.
City staff said the plan makes it safer for other trail users, who might encounter a dog as it beelines for the water.
"It's absurd to try to go to the park and either jog or ride a bicycle with all these loose dogs around," said former trail user David Brooks.
Several years ago, Brooks said his daughter had a close encounter at the park and he hasn't been back since.
"[There was a] big white muscular pit bull running at full speed towards us. I didn't have time to do anything but turn around and look to see my 19-month-old daughter get head-butted to the ground. Those of us who don't have dogs, or don't want to play with other people's dogs, are excluded," Brooks said, adding that he hopes a new design will make a better park for everyone, and maybe then he'll return.
The City Council is set to vote on the design during its meeting Thursday.