With Zilker Plan Dead, When Will Council Move on Park Improvements?

Parts of the plan should remain, Paige Ellis says

Austinites cool down at Barton Springs in 2022 (Photo by John Anderson)

After the dramatic death of the Zilker Park Vision Plan last week, following months of bitter contention, one question remains: What's next for the park itself?

The city spent $600,000 and three years on consultants Design Workshop to craft the plan, in response to a 2018 Council directive to study parking issues within the park. The proposed solutions to those issues became one of the central battles over the plan. But overflow parking on the Great Lawn isn't the only problem with Zilker as Austin's population continues to boom: A lack of transportation options, unsafe pedestrian crossings on Barton Springs Road, and severe erosion of the banks of Barton Creek "all add up to a park in crisis," as the plan put it. The consultant team's research found more than 1,000 feet of the Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail is in an erosion hazard zone, as well as 951 feet of the Zilker Loop Trail and most of the park's drainage infrastructure. To address that, the plan identified 14 acres of green stormwater infrastructure needed to stop serious erosion on the banks of Barton Creek.

But can there ever be consensus enough to move forward on tangible improvements for Zilker? In a joint statement last Monday preceding Mayor Kirk Watson's decision to kill the plan, Council Members Ryan Alter, Zo Qadri, and Mayor Pro Tem Paige Ellis claimed there are "many improvements that have community consensus, such as additional green space, shade trees, erosion control, and bathrooms. Other elements, however, seem to be flash points of irreconcilable differences."

“Council also could have considered amendments to the Plan if we had taken it up on the dais.” – Mayor Pro Tem Paige Ellis

Those flash points included the relocation of the Zilker Hillside Theater and three proposed parking garages. Though the consultant team stressed that the plan was a nonbinding framework, the tone of urgency that surrounded the Save Zilker campaign led to widespread fears the park was turning into a cash cow for Austin City Limits Festival's parent company, C3 Presents, at the expense of the environment. (Consultants argued the relocation of the theatre would have actually moved it out of the watershed, and the parking garage would have reduced the amount of car juices dripping into the ground around Barton.) Still, Watson's newsletter suggests Austinites have a "common goal" of "equitable access to people from all over the city" and agreement on the need for the Zilker Hillside Theater to "accommodate a growing city and to have a more functional venue."

Watson recommends that after "we cool off for a spell" and revisit the plan – no specific timeline yet – "I'm not convinced there's the need for a new 'vision planning process.'" As for the contentious items, he recommends specific fixes that could have more consensus individually than a comprehensive plan: "For example, we can look at parking offsite, but serving the park, as a stand-alone item."

But Ellis points out this could have happened August 31 when the plan was set to come to a vote: "Council could have considered amendments to the Plan if we had taken it up on the dais. For example, I was in discussions about the feasibility and environmental impacts of the central parking structure as well as the potential future of the Zilker Hillside Theater. Unfortunately, in recent weeks, it became more and more difficult to have conversations with people about those elements of the plan."

She stresses that "City initiatives take time. From the inception of a policy proposal, public input, City staff review, identification of funding, and all the steps in between, it can take years before policies and plans reach the implementation stage. Without any sort of plan or framework in place, needed improvements to Zilker Park will be even further delayed."

To avoid future contention, Ellis suggests better community engagement: "It is clear that many folks were still unaware of the details once the draft plan was released. While it's not clear if or when a new formal vision planning process might begin, the hard work from City staff, community planners, Boards & Commissions members, and countless more stakeholders these last few years will not go to waste. There's no stopping Austin's population growth and that means more visitors to Zilker Park every year – a reality we must all face and actively address."

* Editor's note, Thursday, Aug. 17, 9:24am: A previous version of this article stated that the city paid consultants Design Workshop $200 million to work on the Zilker Park Vision Plan. That is not correct – they were paid $600,000. The $200 million figure is what the plan was estimated to cost if implemented. The Chronicle regrets the error.

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Zilker Park, Zilker Vision Plan, Paige Ellis, Kirk Watson

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