City eyes new recreation sites
To meet the demand of Leander's growing population and residents' desire for a high quality of life, city leaders have appropriated funds to purchase and plan new parks as well as build additions to existing parks and trails.
By Dec. 31 the city plans to complete the purchase of a 43-acre property along the San Gabriel River, which will be developed into a park with nature walks and a sports complex. Plans are also underway for the new Lakewood Community Park southwest of the intersection of East Crystal Falls Parkway and Ronald Reagan Boulevard, and the new Veterans Park on Sonny Drive next to the Leander Public Library.
The city also plans upgrades to existing parks such as the baseball fields at Benbrook Ranch Park and added parking at Robin Bledsoe Park, said Steve Bosak, director of the Leander Parks and Recreation Department. City leaders have said they want to make parks a priority while also lowering the property tax rate.
"Quality of life is important to people, and I'm excited because we're finally to that stage in our city's history where we've got some funds to use," Bosak said. "We've known what we need to do. So now we get to go out and carry out the vision."
Planning new parks
In 2011 city planners conducted a survey of Leander residents and hosted open-house discussions to learn what parks and open spaces residents wanted to see developed. In August 2011, City Council approved an update to the city's Parks, Recreation & Open Space Master Plan. The plan ranks the city's goals for the next 10 years and residents' stated priorities.
Tami Holk-Johnson, chairwoman of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, said city residents ranked trails, youth sports facilities, natural areas and open spaces, recreational water facilities and playscapes at the top of their wish lists.
"Leander is a growing community, and we want to make sure that we're meeting the needs for people with the parks," Holk-Johnson said. "We've got a lot of support from City Council."
Mayor Chris Fielder said the council has kept new and improved parks on its long-term agenda.
"We've known we need parkland," Fielder said. "We're now in a spot where we can buy some."
On Sept. 11, City Council approved spending up to $1.8 million in the FY 2014–15 budget to purchase a new site for parkland—the city's first such purchase in 10 years—in accordance with the parks plan's recommendation for a new sports complex. Bosak said staffers have been seeking a new site since February.
"We're becoming more and more aware that land is precious in Leander now," Bosak said. "In a perfect world we'd have [a park in the] dead center of the city. But other land became available."
In December the city plans to close on the 43 acres near the San Gabriel River, though the city has not estimated costs or drawn plans for a future sports complex.
But plans are drawn for Veterans Park, which broke ground Nov. 8. The 3.3-acre park's first phase is funded with $205,000 from the city's fiscal year 2014–15 budget. Bosak said the park's first feature, a concrete walk of honor around the pond, could be finished by summer 2015.
Some of Veterans Park's projected $1 million cost may come from private donations, such as for five military division flags or a centerpiece sculpture that could cost another $100,000, Fielder said. The city's Veterans Park Advisory Committee has raised about $15,000, Bosak said.
"It's going to be a little cultural center," Fielder said.
The future Lakewood Community Park will likely include 125 acres. In August the Parks Department applied for a $400,000 grant from the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department to start Lakewood. If the city is awarded the grant on Jan. 22, Lakewood building could start in fall 2015, he said.
The project will start with land clearing for a wide field, some trails, and a fishing pier and dock for paddleboats, Bosak said. Depending on future funding, the park could also include pavilions, a basketball or volleyball court, a playscape and splash pad, longer trails and a dog park.
Holk-Johnson said Lakewood will also represents the city's first park on the east side of US 183.
Upgrading existing parks
Several of Leander's current parks will receive makeovers or new amenities to address local needs.
City Council on Sept. 18 approved spending about $2.3 million to build three of four new baseball fields at Benbrook Ranch Park southeast of the intersection of Bagdad Road and Halsey Drive. Holk-Johnson said the city also hopes to renovate sports fields at Robin Bledsoe Park.
"Bledsoe has been our primary park for the most part," she said. "And it's overused."
But Devine Lake Park in the North Creek neighborhood is underused, partly because of low lake levels, she said.
"We've been in a drought pretty much ever since we built that lake," Holk-Johnson said. "If you can't keep water in the lake, it's hard to [do] fishing out there."
Funding future parks
City Council has steadily increased the Parks and Recreation Department budget since 2012. The city's FY 2013–14 budget appropriated $912,769 to spend on parks, and the FY 2014–15 budget grows the department's budget to about $1.26 million.
In FY 2013–14 the department slightly increased its revenue from usage fees for fields and pavilions and rentals of the city's Mason Homestead historical attraction.
"I won't say [revenue] is not significant, but it doesn't pay the bills," Bosak said.
The department depends on the city's general fund for almost all of its operating costs. Bosak said the FY 2014–15 budget includes funding for two new parks maintenance positions. The department will hire more staffers when the Lakewood and Veterans parks are finished, he said.
"A lot of things government does—people don't always get real fired up about," Bosak said. "Parks is one [expense] they like. And we're happy to provide fun things and positive things for this community to do."
For a map and information about current and future parks in Leander, view the PDF here.
Trailblazing in Leander
During Leander's Community Needs Survey in 2011, residents ranked trails as their top desire for parks improvement, said Tami Holk-Johnson, chairwoman of the Leander Parks and Recreation Advisory Board.
"Whatever will get [residents] outside and moving is always a great thing," Holk-Johnson said.
In response city leaders included a trails master plan in the city's 2011 update of the 10-year Parks, Recreation & Open Space Master Plan. Leander Planning and Zoning Commission and City Council members also work with builders who propose developments in areas the city has planned for trails, said Steve Bosak, director of the Leander Parks and Recreation Department.
The city's parkland dedication ordinance requires commercial and residential developers to participate in the city's master plan to link all of Leander's trails and parks by pledging land or building trails, Bosak said. For example, developers in November started the Oak Creek project southwest of San Gabriel Parkway and US 183, a development that includes new trails. Those trails will run east to US 183, and west to Benbrook Ranch Park to connect with Benbrook's trails.
"It's all about connectivity, all about alternative transportation and recreation, health and wellness," Bosak said. "Our trail plain is designed to connect the community: parks, schools to business areas, to churches, to neighborhoods. We try to do that with this trail system."
The Parks Department is focusing on building paved nature trails for pedestrians, cyclists, or families with strollers. City plans call for about 112 miles of trails in the city, a total that includes nature trails and sidewalks alongside connector roads but does not include wider sidewalks next to main roads. Bosak said some of the new sidewalks and trails will be in the future Veterans Park, Lakewood Community Park and San Gabriel park.
In five years the San Gabriel River park may include a river trail that links Toll 183A with US 183, he said.
City plans also include a network of new Brushy Creek nature trails throughout the city, with one trail in east Leander that divides into three trail branches west of Toll 183A, a Bloody Hollow nature trail that continues from the Brushy Creek Trail's north branch, and a Nameless Valley Ranch nature trail in southwest Leander.