After dutifully passing through commissions and committees and a thorough airing of opinions, plans for a new Dougherty Arts Center site were approved by the Austin City Council last week. 

At its regular meeting on Thursday, May 20, the council voted unanimously Thursday to approve an alternate plan to that recommended by city staff and supported by the city’s Planning Commission. Both of those groups supported the plan called 1B, which would have placed the new center near the Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail and Butler Fields on the south side of the Colorado River.

Groups including the Save Our Springs Alliance, as well as individuals, opposed the 1B plan, arguing along with District 5 Councilmember Ann Kitchen that it would take up too much parkland and be too close to the trail.

Plan 1A, ultimately approved by the council, groups a new Dougherty building, associated parking, and other facilities closer to the existing Zach Theatre compound and other arts buildings in the area. That plan will require the conversion of less city parkland and avoid adding impervious cover at the site, according to Kitchen.

In addition to the Planning Commission, the city’s Parks and Recreation Board and its Environmental Commission had generally (if not officially) supported Plan 1B, citing its compact design, its connection to the trail, and its limited impact on heritage trees among the reasons. Both groups had also taken the position that all the plans presented good options. At least one speaker at the council meeting objected to using any city parkland for the project, suggesting that it work with the Austin Independent School District to renovate an empty school or district building for relocation of the arts center.

The council motion, made by Kitchen and passed unanimously, includes direction that the project maximize green space, allow for future expansion plans, establish Riverside Drive as the primary public ingress and egress, and address challenges of providing pickup and dropoff of children at educational facilities. It also directs that city staff’s traffic analysis take into account the significant bicycle and pedestrian traffic along adjacent Toomey Road and that it set a goal of reducing personal vehicle traffic on that road.

The remaking of Dougherty, the community theater and arts facility currently located at 1110 Barton Springs Road, has been a long-awaited project on the city's agenda. The former Naval Reserve Center was built in 1947, became the Dougherty in 1978, and has become increasingly fraught with problems, mostly flooding, that make renovating it untenable.

Funding for the relocation of the current building will come from a $128 million bond passed in 2018. PARD will seek an LEED Gold rating for the building, which it says will have a roof with occupied and planted areas, with 50 percent of its area ready for solar panels. Construction on the project is slated to start in fall 2022.