Community Advocates Worry Commercial Interests Dominate Zilker Park Vision Plan
Zilker Park or “Park Zilker”?
After two years of discussion and stakeholder input, the city's final draft of the Zilker Park Vision Plan has drawn the ire of environmentalists who say it turns the park into a cash cow for Live Nation/Ticketmaster.
In mid-November, the Austin Parks and Recreation Department and its consultant partner Design Workshop released the final draft of the plan, which will be hammered out as it moves through multiple boards and commissions before finally reaching City Council around June. In addition to the physical design for the park, the plan lays out new programming and leadership roles for the myriad for-profit and nonprofit organizations that operate in and around Zilker. It's this dual stewardship that concerns the several stakeholder groups and citizens that have engaged with the plan since its inception.
Rewilding Zilker, a collective of Save Our Springs Alliance, Sierra Club, and the Zilker Neighborhood Association, has been the most vocal advocate for restoring the natural areas of the park and leaving them be, and has released its own alternative vision plan; the city's final draft does include ecological restoration in parts of the park, but has far too much programming and parking garages for them. But SOS galvanized the public around a bigger issue at the city's open house on Saturday, writing in an Instagram post that the plan "would convert the park into a year around commercial and private profit center for the national music industry monopoly Live Nation/Ticketmaster and its local 'conservancy.'"
That concern derives from a funding structure proposed in the plan that would bring park partners into a "unified (umbrella) nonprofit, formalized as a partnership with the city," which reads to some advocates as Waterloo Park 2.0. The plan altogether would cost around $200 million, with parking garages around $20 million each, a land bridge across Barton Springs Road at $10 million to $20 million, and a welcome plaza around $1 million to $10 million. Because funding for operations and management of the park comes from PARD's slice of the city's General Fund (which other departments compete for), the vision planners believe the nonprofit, or conservancy, along with expanding concessions and parking fees, could play a role "much like the Trail Conservancy does with the Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail to have that well-documented, well-vetted partnership with the city," says Claire Hempel, a principal with Design Workshop and vice chair of the city Planning Commission.
Rewilding Zilker's Robin Rather, president of ZNA, says, "It looks like money's going to come from mega donors associated with … commercial transactors in the park." What those donors want, she says, is parking. She speculates that another organization that has advocated for increased parking – the Zilker Collective Impact Working Group – is a cover for "the needs of ACL, C3, Live Nation/Ticketmaster [that are] not overt."
The Collective comprises 16 organizations, including the Austin Parks Foundation – which receives funding from C3 Presents, whose parent company is Live Nation – the Umlauf Sculpture Garden, the Barton Springs Conservancy, the Rowing Dock, and Zilker Hillside Theater, among others. Karen Blizzard, the Collective's project manager, says they have no involvement with C3 or Live Nation, but they do endorse the creation of a unified umbrella nonprofit and the parking garages, which they say are critical to equitable access to the park. When asked about its response to SOS's post, C3 said in an email, "The festival will always offer the same scale and experience to its fans in the years ahead." Hempel stresses that C3 is "not sitting at the table to make any decisions regarding the plan" and that the conservancy would be far down the road, like every item in the draft plan, which is not yet in the design phase and still needs to be approved by Council.
The Collective supports the majority of the plan, with a few caveats, and told us, "Part of creating equitable access is making parking available. We're advocating for the parking garages because that really consolidates parking … while reducing impervious cover by gradually eliminating some surface parking." The Rewilding group says the mobility aspect of the plan, especially the inclusion of an internal shuttle circulator, along with the use of the Pavemint app that rents out parking spaces surrounding the park, should be able to offset the need for building garages, which are "stupid expensive," Rather says. She adds that PARD's estimated existing 1,000 spaces are "plenty. Most of the time, except for peak periods, if you go down there during the week, it's no problem to park." The Collective, Hempel, and many participants in the community engagement process disagree, but ultimately, Rather questions the need for such a comprehensive overhaul of the park at all: "Do we really need up to maybe half a billion dollars of investment in Zilker? And where are we going to get it if we do? And from an equity standpoint, are the other metropolitan parks going to get a similar level of investment?"
Attendees at the Saturday open house voiced a similar concern: One East Austin resident told the Chronicle he thinks PARD should "direct more money towards more staff to take care of the parks that they have. I just think it's too much for the general public to digest. If they had said, 'We'd like to do a land bridge' … and then pitched that, the public could get behind that. When you do all this stuff it makes it look like they wanna dig the whole park up."
But Hempel stresses that the plan is incremental and currently still high-level: "We're not saying, 'City, go ahead and build three parking garages.' We're saying these are the spots [that] make sense, but the city needs to keep a close eye on other opportunities. So if an external shuttle comes online that's reliable and efficient, then we can think about reducing the need."
In terms of the cost, along with the potential conservancy model, Hempel anticipates a parks bond in 2024 that would allocate funding for not only Zilker, but other parks that have already had a vision planning process, such as Walter E. Long and Treviño. The plan doesn't include exact costs because of "market volatility … a neat price total amount would be worthless to the city in six months," says Hempel, but it does include a general cost-benefit analysis. Every piece of the plan will have to go through multiple boards and commissions between January and March 2023, and public input is being collected through Jan. 8. Council will then take it up starting in May 2023.
Two sticky notes on a rendering poster board at the open house Saturday illustrated two opposing worries: "very concerned this will become a privatized pay-to-play park in the long term" and "don't let SOS manipulate this plan." Greg Montes, PARD's project manager for the vision plan, says neither will decidedly win out. "Park planning is not a voting contest. That's what people need to understand. We have to balance that this is a metropolitan park [and] that the neighbors that live here think it's a neighborhood park. It's about balancing competing interests. We can never make everyone happy. But we're trying to compromise so that everyone gets something."
See the draft plan, plus an online survey, recordings of past meetings, and a list of upcoming pop-up meetings at austintexas.gov/zilkervision.