AUSTIN (KXAN) — A south Austin playground got a makeover to become more handicap accessible, but some say there’s still an obstacle to get to the park.
Ellen Higgins park has two new, safer playscapes, an added swing set, and it’s now compliant with federal rules covering accessibility for people with disabilities. The $225,000 to upgrade came from a 2018 bond for parks and recreation. Construction began in March 2022 and was finished weeks later.
That means playtime just kicked up a notch for little Fox Hammers and his sister, Temple. Their dad is also digging the new renovations.
“I just really appreciate it when neighborhoods and parks are made easier for everybody,” Jay Hammers said.
Charlie Hirst, a retired teacher who has lived near the park for years, said, “I’ve seen the park evolve. Just to come to the park, it’s a welcoming park.”
It’s even more welcoming with Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant walkways, benches and receptacles. All of which are great, Hirst said, but there’s still one problem accessing all these accessible features: “We call it the sidewalk to nowhere.”
A sidewalk leads to the park, but it’s only a few feet long with no entrance. The only other way to get to the park is through a patch of dirt, which could be a problem for people with mobility issues, Hirst pointed out.
“If you are in a wheelchair, if you’re pushing a stroller, if you’re doing any of that, it really hinders your access,” Hirst said.
So how did this happen? An Austin Parks and Recreation Department spokesperson wrote in a statement while the department “noted the right of way and access issues” since the beginning of the project, the sidewalk is not located on parkland and “funding for right of way sidewalks and crosswalks was not available as part of this project.”
“Making the park accessible from the street was never part of the scope of work. Parks and Recreation staff did contact Public Works during construction to see if they could assist with the eroded area in front of the park (in Public Works right of way) but they were not able to assist since it is also in the drainage area (managed by Watershed Protection),” Austin Parks and Recreation said.
Austin Public Works is in charge of building sidewalks on public right of way, but it said there are more than 2,500 miles of “absent sidewalks” in the city and limited money.
“In total, there is over 3,000 miles of backlogged sidewalk work in Austin. Current funding is only sufficient to address approximately 30 miles per year (less than 1%). At the current funding rate — and without either adjacent lot being developed or redeveloped — our Sidewalk Program does not expect to have the resources to address these missing segments in the near term,” Austin Public Works said.
Even so, Hirst said he’ll continue to get the word out.
“This park’s for everybody. It’s not just for able-bodied people, and I want everyone to be able to enjoy the park,” Hirst said.