The City of Austin’s historical neglect of park facilities east of I-35 compared with the central crown jewels of its system shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone familiar with the historical neglect of nearly everything east of I-35. What’s more obvious lately is the city’s own institutional awareness of that inequality, now cast in a harsher light than ever and not easily fixed by HR-friendly buzzwords like “equity” or “inclusion” since the issues at hand are often structural — not metaphorically, but in the literal sense of, say, a crumbling swimming pool leaking 120,000 gallons of water each day.
But the failing infrastructure that closed the pool of Givens District Park after more than 60 years of service to a historically Black community in East Austin is now set for a bond-funded renovation, and by all accounts the public engagement process informing the city’s vision plan for upgrades to the park and its pool was highly sensitive to the past and present of this neighborhood. We got a closer look at the new Givens District Park Aquatic Facility at a presentation to the Design Commission last week by representatives of the Parks and Recreation Department, Marmon Mok Architecture, and landscape architects Coleman & Associates, and the plan secured the commission’s unanimous recommendation — although commissioners mentioned that there ought to be a little more diversity in the renderings.
The project extensively renovates the existing 10,000-square-foot Givens pool, enhancing its accessibility with a walk-in “zero entry” feature along with six 25-yard lap lanes and one diving board. Several shade structures, sort of resembling lily pads, will be added around the edge of the water — commissioners also suggested the architects provide a few more than the three isolated shelters seen to the right of the pool in the rendering below, to foster a more communal atmosphere.
The surrounding facility will be refurbished, including the main bathhouse building containing showers, bathrooms, lifeguard offices, and the pool’s entrance. A second poolside building will also be added, providing what’s described as a “community multipurpose/classroom space.” The project’s landscaping provides additional pedestrian access to the facility for the adjacent neighborhood, with a walkway linking the pool to East 12th Street. The current chain-link fence topped with barbed wire around the pool will be replaced with a “more aesthetically appropriate” non-climbable security fence without the visually troublesome barbed wire.
At all times, the architects stressed that these upgrades intend to enhance the facility’s capabilities as a family-oriented community amenity, likely a necessary reassurance to neighborhood residents vocally concerned that the rising real estate values of the surrounding region will lead to changes in programming. It’s a project clearly going for a light touch, and its major additions don’t overpower the general sense of renovation over replacement.
Even so, the new pool is not expected to open until 2024, an example of the vast gap in effort, time, and money between acknowledging something and fixing it. Similar efforts for Govalle Park, Holly Shores, and other East Austin landmarks are now underway, and once they’re finished we should have a park system that adequately serves both sides of the highway — but Givens Park is a particularly delicate case, with a history of violent incidents on its grounds alongside the poor conditions at many of its facilities adding up to what nearby residents describe as an unfair stigma.
The park’s namesake, one of Austin’s first Black dentists Dr. Everett H. Givens, established his legacy as a constant advocate for greater civic investment in East Austin’s community infrastructure and public safety — mundane, generally unsexy backstage improvements lacking the flash and sizzle of high-dollar greenways or signature bridges, but equally necessary to ensure a better quality of life for all Austinites. We hope the new Givens pool honors his memory, and more specifically the highly relatable perspective on Austin he expressed in the quote below:
Givens is the reason Greenwood Avenue ends in a cul-de-sac. He pushed the city to build out bridges connecting East Austin across East Avenue (now I-35). He raised hell at county commissioner meetings, pleading with commissioners to hire Black deputies. And he demanded more equitable policing from the Austin Police Department.
“Of course there could be a great deal of improvement,” he told then-Mayor Charles McAden in 1955. “But things could be a lot worse.”