Zilker Park: A Neglected Crown Jewel

This maintenance shed at Zilker Park looks like it could use some maintenance itself.
This maintenance shed at Zilker Park looks like it could use some maintenance itself. (Photo By John Anderson)

If the model for Austin parks at the end of the 20th century remains Zilker Park and the Barton Springs Greenbelt, the Austin Parks Foundation hopes the Colorado River Park can provide the model for the next 100 years. Not that APF executive director Tim Fulton wants to replace the "crown jewel" of Austin's celebrated park system, but he does say that problems with Zilker could be remedied with a master planning effort like the one being used to shape the project in Southeast Austin.

"With a real plan in place, you could solve the problems before they were developed," Fulton says. "Zilker Park was not really planned, and there are items lacking from that park. When a park is complete, you can feel it. I can't tell you what exactly that is, but Zilker doesn't have it yet."

Because no long-range plans exist for Zilker, Fulton maintains, myriad difficulties ranging from parking problems to overcrowding and user conflicts have come to plague Austin's favorite place to play. He hopes that the work being done on the Colorado River Park can help the city avoid revisiting these issues down the road.

Of course, while part of the problem stems from poor planning at Zilker -- an assessment shared in part by Sarah Macias, site supervisor for 16 years -- maintenance challenges also point to a failure across all Austin's parks to keep pace with the continuing population boom.

Voters recognized that when they approved the sale of $75.9 million in bonds in 1998; $10 million of that is going toward the design and construction of the Colorado River Park. Likewise, the Austin City Council moved this past October to increase the Parks and Recreation Department's funding by $14.3 million from last year, allocating $56.6 million to PARD's general fund. According to a spokesman, $15.2 million of that will be spent on capital improvements.

Still, with more than 14,000 acres of parkland to protect within city limits, basic maintenance -- such as the cleaning of restrooms, the removal of woody debris from trails, and the like -- remains a serious challenge. At Zilker Park, Macias points to a host of ongoing improvement projects aimed to improve visitor experiences, but she also says that a master plan could offset the current piecemeal approach to fixing the park's problems. Specifically, Macias seems pleased at improvements made to irrigation in the park, advances in user education that have reduced conflicts on trails, and this winter's repaving project in the parking area of Barton Springs Pool.

But with all that going on, she adds, she could still use more money to help check off other items on her wish list. A master plan, she adds, would help. "Always, we have these projects that are so site-specific that it's kind of like a puzzle," Macias says. "You've got to make sure the pieces match, and that's been a bit of a problem."

Help may be on its way, though, as the Zilker Park Conservancy -- a fledgling organization modeled after the New York group that took over maintenance duties for Central Park -- struggles to get off the ground. Soccer mom Bettye Nowlin is one of those hoping that private funds might help with the burden of caring for Austin's parks. She suggests that funding could come from corporate interests or grassroots fundraising ­ or some combination of the two. And she adds that it remains to be seen at this early date whether Zilker would come under the auspices of the conservancy or be run as some other type of public-private partnership.

"In Austin, people are truly interested in Zilker and having a master plan," Nowlin says, "but we have just not come up with the right combination and the right people. We have a real problem, because there's a perception that Zilker is cared for by the city, and it's not. The crown jewel just does not get the money spent on it that it needs. I think exploring private ways of doing things in the park is where we're headed."

In addition, Fulton and Macias both see the development of parklands such as the Colorado River Park as a way to alleviate some of the problems faced by Zilker. "We need to have some attractive alternatives," says Macias. "Everybody will always want to have their events in Zilker -- it's our central park. So we need to have a place where people want to go, where they can enjoy themselves and not feel that it's a second-rate experience."

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