Zilker Park Vision Plan wins over Parks and Recreation Board, but the battle is far from over

Friday, May 26, 2023 by Kali Bramble

Following a marathon of public testimony this past Monday, the Zilker Metropolitan Park Vision Plan has secured the blessing of Austin’s Parks and Recreation Board, though its opponents say the fight is far from over.

The vision plan, an ambitious program of park updates including parking garages, road closures and a 5,000-seat amphitheater, has garnered opposition from neighborhood associations and organizations like Save Our Springs Alliance, which would prefer to see the park’s existing amenities preserved and improved. Board members recommended the plan in a 7-3 vote, with Kimberly Taylor, Holly Reed and Lisa Hugman against.

Work on the vision plan began in 2020, when City Council authorized a contract between the Parks and Recreation Department and consulting firm Design Works, with the stated aim of better equipping Zilker Park to handle Austin’s rapid growth. Since then, the team has organized alongside stakeholders like the Austin Parks Foundation, Austin Sunshine Camps, Waterloo Disc Golf Club, Zilker Botanical Garden Conservancy and Zilker Theater Productions to form nonprofit Zilker 351

“Zilker is being loved to death,” said Zilker 351 Board Member Karen Brimble. “There are at least 92 acres of environmental damage within the park, including stormwater damage, soil disturbance, tree damage and erosion to the creek … either we update the park for a rapidly growing city or the park deteriorates from increasing visitor access and usage.”

Since its unveiling in November, the plan has come under fire for its proposal of new above- and below-ground parking garages to replace the gravel lots at the Butler Landfill under MoPac Expressway and the Polo Field lawn, with a potential third garage off of Azie Morton Road. The plan would also close Andrew Zilker and Lou Neff roads to vehicular traffic, as well as add parallel parking spots on a renovated, single-lane Barton Springs Road, though not before soliciting a mobility study to consider potential traffic congestion.

In addition to the garages, the plan envisions two shuttles running both within the park and to outside parking and transit areas, like the One Texas Center parking garage, Republic Square and City Hall. Other connectivity measures include a land bridge connecting the Great Lawn with the park south of Barton Springs Road, as well as a pedestrian and bicycle bridge across the river to Austin High School.

“We’re thinking about densifying where we have impervious cover,” said the vision plan’s environmental consultant Jonathan Ogren. “By bringing the parking together, we’re able to have more of the park without cars … and we’d be able to take around two acres of impervious cover out of the Barton Creek Watershed.”

Nevertheless, a crowd of speakers gathered in city chambers to voice their opposition, distrusting that the development could be pulled off without environmental damage.

“The land under Zilker Park is permeable limestone, a recharge zone for a main source of water,” said speaker Kate Csillagi. “That’s no place for a parking garage, especially underground.”

Speakers also voiced alarm at the plan’s proposal to relocate the Zilker Hillside Theater to a new, 5,000-seat amphitheater at the western end of the Great Lawn. While Zilker 351 says the move is necessary to accommodate growing audiences for the theater programs, opponents see the project as a cash grab and encroachment upon the park’s open space.

“The park is where we come together to swim, picnic, walk and play. It should be a natural area with recreation and not concerts, theater production and large events,” said speaker Kathy Marcus. “Just look at Waterloo Park to see what can happen when we cut down tree cover and build a large venue full of concrete … one park like that is enough.”

In the months since the plan’s release, the Zilker Neighborhood Association, Barton Hills Neighborhood Association, Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association and Save Our Springs Alliance have been organizing an opposition campaign known as Rewild Zilker Park, complete with an alternative plan to preserve the park’s natural habitats and reject further construction. While their message has been popular among longtime Austinites and environmentalists, some are wondering whether their agenda could exacerbate long-standing race and class disparities. 

“My concern about the organized opposition to the Zilker Vision Plan is that it feels like an effort that could take us back to a time when the park was accessible only to certain residents. Today it won’t be a sign out front saying who is and isn’t allowed … but something much more subtle,” said former Parks and Recreation Board Member Richard DePalma. “Although I strongly support multimodal transit options, it seems like everyone knows that telling families to take a one- to two-hour bus ride to the park will reduce usage even more.”

Those interested can expect to hear much more from both sides of the argument at next month’s Public Health Committee meeting, where Council will begin to take on the debate. In the meantime, learn more about the Zilker Vision Plan and Rewild Zilker plans here and here.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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