Zilker Vision Not Quite 20/20

Rewilding advocates call for more specifics as Zilker Vision Plan process nears end

Austin City Limits Music Festival at Zilker Park on Oct. 3, 2021 (Photo by John Anderson)

Since the city Parks and Recreation Department and Design Workshop have been working on the Zilker Park Vision Plan, their shadow has been the rewilding folks, a conglomerate crossover of Zilker Neighborhood Association and Save Our Springs Alliance, who advocate for more of the park to be restored to natural areas and illegal parking to be severely minimized. The most recent Vision Plan Zoom meeting (No. 4 of 5 total) offered the much-anticipated Plan Concepts – three scenarios for improving parking, access, programming, and ecology – but left the rewilding contingent unenthused.

The "Stitch" plan features a land bridge over Barton Springs Road and a 1,700-car parking garage, "Edges" posits a tunnel under the road and three new garages, and "Regenerate" uses the "lightest touch" in an attempt to leave some areas undeveloped (which ZNA clarifies is not the same as rewilding), leaving surface parking intact. Other than novelty ideas like playgrounds or a water taxi, the plans' similarities are more apparent than the differences, all containing internal shuttle routes, increased trail connectivity, and between 80 and 100 acres of "ecological uplift," meaning enhanced tree canopy and green stormwater infrastructure.

During the Q&A on Feb. 15, Claire Hempel of Design Workshop said the rewilding concept has been influential in the planning process, but that DW's charge is to look at the park "holistically – not just ecology but also the use of [it]," referencing the central debate over parking prioritization. Many of DW's stated priorities do align with the rewilding group's – ecological uplift, increased accessibility, etc. – but Robin Rather, vice president of parks and environment with ZNA, wants better execution: "The plan is still more incoherent and confusing than it should be at this point; [the scenarios] don't really hold together as three distinct options."

Rather said DW's biggest issue is a lack of cost analysis: In regards to new garages, she said, "It's a lot less expensive to have other options available so people can get [there] without having to drive." Each good idea is still a question mark without the price tag: "What are the cost trade-offs and the investment parameters [around] the land bridge, the tunnel, the parking structures, the visitor center?" She said the accessibility plan should be less about internal shuttles and more about public transportation options from farther areas of the city that require a car to get to Zilker, and suggests "a free shuttle that runs on the weekends and during the summer when the park is at peak popularity." DW mentioned an external shuttle during the presentation but deferred to Project Connect to work out the details.

The Vision Plan also lacks exact strategies for where and how to do the ecological uplift within the park, other than a focus on Barton Creek's degraded areas, which Rather appreciates. Hempel conceded in the Q&A that things like impervious cover calculations and watershed protection plans are "critical," but that DW is "not ready to share those [calculations] yet. We still need to digest those as a team."

The plan struggles with another kind of accessibility as well – respondents to surveys and participants in Zooms have been overwhelmingly white, over 55, and from ZIP code 78704. DW mentioned in the Q&A that there will be additional small group discussions on equity, and more pop-ups in Council Districts 1, 2, 3, and 4, but Rather says there needs to be a more "robust, bold" vision for equity, and everything else. "We're a year into this thing; we should have some basic guesstimates on the level of investment for the discrete features they are describing, as well as the overall plan."

The last Vision Plan meeting will be in June; take the survey to share your thoughts on the three scenarios at publicinput.com/zilkervision5, open through March 21.

Got something to say on the subject? Send a letter to the editor.

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