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Wooldridge Park Reopens – Will it Stay a Magnet for Austin’s Homeless?

Matthew Alvarez for KUT News

After a year-long closure, the chain-linked fence surrounding Wooldridge Park is down and the space is open to the public again.

The $306,800 renovation covered park improvements including drought-tolerant turf grass, a new irrigation system and electrical upgrades including high-efficiency LED light fixtures.

In addition to new benches, and seating arrangements, the historic gazebo in the center of the park has been repaired and painted in a collaboration including Friends of Wooldridge Park, the Austin Parks Ffoundation, and the Parks and Recreation Department.

Last legislative session, State Sen. Kirk Watson carried Senate Bill 1023; the bill renewed the City of Austin’s lease of Wooldridge Park from the state of Texas for another 99 years. Sen. Watson said the passing of the bill is a way of commemorating the opening of Wooldridge Square.

“It had fallen into some disrepair, and it needed to be updated and upgraded,” Sen. Watson said. “The City of Austin has done a very smart thing and restored the grandeur of Wooldridge Square and recognized its key historical role in downtown Austin. Not just the history of it, but something future generations would be able to enjoy.”

Sen. Watson recalls Wooldridge Square as an old stomping ground for politicos. It’s the very park where Lyndon Baines Johnson announced his bid for the United States Senate in 1948. But in recent years, Wooldridge Park has become associated with another clientele: Austin’s homeless.

Overlooking today’s ribbon cutting ceremony was “Bruce” – a homeless man who spends a portion of his day at Wooldridge Square. He said that the opening of the park would bring no change to his daily routine.      

“I don’t think you’ll ever see it as is was,” Bruce said. “It doesn’t bother me. I’m just here for the shade. I have other problems with the city, but here they’ve treated me very well here.”

Bruce said that only time would tell how the homeless community would be affected by the overall revitalization of Wooldridge Park. But Bruce doesn’t plan on going anywhere anytime soon.  

“We have had people come by here that work for the city that say it’s not going to be like it use to be,” he said. “They were going to get tougher on us. I don’t see how they can, but we’ll just have to wait and see.” 

Austin Parks and Recreation’s Marty Stump has a clear understanding of Wooldridge Square’s previous occupancy. He acknowledged the park is open to the general public.

“We recognize that the downtown squares are part of the urban fabric of Austin, and it’s where people want to be all walks of life,” Stump said. “So the park is available and welcome to the homeless, and other parts of the population.”

Stump said the key is to strike a balance within the parks usage, so that one group of individuals is not discouraging others by their population, including the homeless.

“We want them to feel welcome and not discriminated against … but to understand that there’s a responsibility by all park users to not negatively influence everyone else.”

Other changes to Wooldridge Park include food vendors and musical performances. Stump said keeping the park vital requires more than just scenic view.        

“It’s all part of a conscious effort to reactivate the park – really bring this park back to life,” Stump said. “Just a stand of trees, lovely green grass only gets you halfway there. You got to have the people in the park that are actively engaged.”

A full slate of events will be held at Wooldridge Park on Saturday, September 14 from 7:30 a.m. through 8:00 p.m., including a performance by the Austin Symphony Orchestra.

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