Tensions Rise Ahead of Meeting on Zilker Plan

Dazed and confused over Zilker

Zilker Park during ACL Festival in 2022 (Photo by John Anderson)

As the Zilker Vision Plan nears its City Council vote, slated for July 20, a bitter battle is being waged between differing visions for the park. Rewild Zilker – a coalition of Save Our Springs (SOS) Alliance, Sierra Club, and the Zilker Neighborhood Assoc­iation – has pushed back on the draft plan for its inclusion of up to three parking garages and the idea of a "unified nonprofit," which they fear would be a front for C3 Presents, the parent company of Austin City Limits Festival. A newly formed Instagram account called Save Zilker Park posted last week that the plan promotes "privatization and monetization" of the park, which sparked outrage online. Save Zilker Park is not affiliated with Rewild (it's run by a single private citizen), and though some of its points have echoed long held concerns, some of the content circulating has been flat-out untrue.

Ahead of the Parks and Recreation Board's final recommendation to Council May 22, Council Member Zo Qadri wrote, "Zilker Park is not for sale," in an email to constituents last week. "Despite the unfortunate misinformation that's been circulating on social media in recent days, there are no plans to hand control of Austin's most beloved park over to private interests."

Zilker for Sale? Nope.

Rewild Zilker's Robin Rather agrees that the idea that PARD is "selling" the park to ACL "is obviously inaccurate as hell." However, Rewild does fear privatization, and doesn't see a need for much change in the park: "Austin's changed so much it's become unlivable. What we hear a lot is, 'For God's sake, don't F up Zilker Park too.'"

Rather says the consultant team has dismissed Rewild's concerns about the commercialization of the park "from the beginning, but most of the people that are actual park users, you show them even a little bit of this and they get up in arms."

“There was one post saying they were selling and changing the ownership of Zilker to ACL, which is obviously inaccurate as hell.” – Robin Rather, Rewild Zilker

The privatization concerns center on the concept of a "unified nonprofit," which came to be because PARD gets the majority of funds for operations and management of the park from the city's general fund, which is "under constant pressure (and competition) from many other departments," as the plan puts it – thus, "other sources of revenue ... are critical." The nonprofit partner would fundraise, while acting as a liaison between PARD and all the organizations in the park, but would not be involved in PARD's day-to-day operations.

The Parks Board voted to recommend the plan in February, leaving out the nonprofit idea, because "seriously flawed" community engagement hadn't included a survey of "public desire to create an umbrella organization." Afterward, PARD Director Kimberly McNeeley wrote a memo reminding the board that Council approved an ordinance in March 2020 encouraging nonprofit partnerships. The PARD 2020-30 long-range plan does the same, and several such nonprofits already exist, including the Trail Conservancy, Shoal Creek Conserv­ancy, Keep Austin Beautiful, and Waterloo Greenway. Barton Springs Conservancy, another PARD partner, recently raised millions to fund a new bathhouse at the springs.

Still, in April, the Environmental Commission also voted to remove the nonprofit idea, and Rather says these kinds of partnerships shouldn't exist at all. She contends that without the new construction in the vision plan, the park wouldn't need as much money, eliminating the utility in a fundraising organization.

Rewild fears the presumptive nonprofit partner, Zilker 351, is in the pocket of C3 Presents, which Karen Blizzard, interim executive director of Zilker 351, rejects: "Zilker 351 does not receive funding from C3, LiveNation, or Ticketmaster and has never met with them." The fears began over inclusion of Austin Parks Foundation among the 15 other involved nonprofits; APF received 67% of its total revenue in 2021 from ACL, and it relies on multimillion-dollar discretionary gifts from ACL each year, while the mandatory fee they must pay the city to rent Zilker is capped at a scant $100,000. "I think that ACL's fingerprints are all over this," says Rather. But, Blizzard says, the Austin Parks Foundation "has never advocated for C3 needs through Zilker 351 ... APF receives revenues from ACL Fest, which they distribute to improve the 370+ parks across Austin."

The vision plan team's Claire Hempel told the Chronicle in December that C3 is "not sitting at the table to make any decisions." She says that's still the case. "They're not making decisions – we consulted with them as a stakeholder ... What I find interesting is this whole thing about 'the planning team's in the pocket of C3' [is that] where C3 sets up today in the park at the gravel lot ... is shown as completely restored natural area in the plan." Hempel says confusion may have arisen from the relocation of the Hillside Theater to the Great Lawn, which also involves doubling the capacity to 5,000. People assumed that would be a year-round music venue: "It's not intended for that use," says Hempel. The Hillside Theater, Nature and Science Center, and Botanical Gardens support the relocation to expand their programming.

Zilker 351 grew out of a working group which began meeting to discuss the vision plan with the consultant team in 2021. "We were aware of the directive from Austin City Council to PARD to work with a group such as this," says Blizzard. But Zilker 351 is not yet the "unified nonprofit" the plan describes – to do that it would have to go through the city "PARKnership" process.

That process allows for different levels of nonprofit involvement in park operations, explains PARD's Christine Chute Canul. Lower levels are nonprofit support for one-time events or running limited projects like community gardens. The highest level of involvement – in daily operations – requires a minimum seven-year history of collaboration with PARD. This level would require signing a Park Operations and Maintenance Agreement (POMA) with PARD, like the Trail Conservancy did in 2022.

Rather worries the partnership would allow Zilker 351 to funnel parking garage fee revenue to ACL, but that's not possible. The only way an organization could gain revenue from the park, Canul tells the Chronicle, is if Zilker 351 had a POMA, which it does not qualify for at this point – and even then, all revenue would have to go back into operations at the park. Blizzard stresses that like all aspects of the vision plan, a community engagement process would determine responsibilities of a future umbrella nonprofit (and require City Council approval).

Rick Brimer, who serves on the Environ­mental Commission, told the Chronicle he worries that a nonprofit partner may not be transparent enough: "They're not publicly elected. There's no public meetings. There's no public input, there's no minutes. You don't know how they select the projects that they allocate their money to." Canul does point out that if the nonprofit entered into a POMA, their financial statements would be audited annually.

To Park or Not to Park

The draft plan contends that "the parking that exists today was built to serve a much smaller and car-centric city," and would reduce the amount of parking spaces over time as public transit fills in. The proposal of up to three parking garages would reduce impervious cover and traffic congestion, explains Hempel, and reduce pollution from cars idling as people wait to enter/exit the park on weekends. Currently there are 1,150 informal spaces on grassy areas, which the plan would formalize. At the moment, those spots "are draining directly into the creek," says Hempel.

Claire Hempel (l) with project consultants Design Workshop answers questions at a community meeting for the Zilker Park Vision Plan on December 10, 2022 - (Photo by John Anderson)

Rewild is "not against parking garages adjacent to the park on already paved areas. We're against putting new parking garages in the park, especially in fragile areas," Rather says. The Environmental Com­mis­sion noted in their recommendation to Council that the plan makes several environmental improvements, but they had questions about the placement of the garages possibly in the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone, particularly an underground garage below a land bridge over Barton Springs Road. Brimer told the Chronicle it's possible two of those garages can't even be built. As far as the consultant team is aware, the garages are outside of the recharge zone, but Hempel says environmental analyses haven't happened yet.

At the EC meeting, Bobby Levinski, an attorney for SOS, crystallized an issue the consultant team and Rewild agree on: "I don't know why we're talking about an underground parking garage when we have a viable option in front of us, which is to expand the shuttle system."

That shuttle service would allow people to park off-site by contracting with privately owned garages such as the Dougherty Arts Center, Republic Square, and the Palmer Events Center. The service was piloted last summer and will begin again this summer at One Texas Center on Memorial Day weekend. At the EC meeting, environmental consultant Jonathan Ogren emphasized that "ideally we're moving to transit. But [garages] accommodate the amount of cars that are going there today while meeting our ecological goals."

Rewild believes now is the time to act, because if Council approves the plan, there won't be enough flexibility down the road. "I've heard the consultants say about 2,000 times: 'It's just a vision plan, nothing's pinned down,'" says Rather. "You don't spend over half a million dollars on nothing." But Hempel stresses that Council is just approving a direction, not specific projects. However, she says, "for any kind of a bond initiative, it's really important that [ideas] are memorialized in a vision plan." The plan itself says it could take decades to realize: "This serves as a road map for city leadership, decision-makers, and collaborators as implementation moves forward."

To get involved this month, sign up to comment at the Parks Board meeting this Monday, May 22, or try out the second pilot shuttle service from One Texas Center to the park, beginning the weekend of May 27.

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

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