May 22, 2023 - News

Austin debates the future of Zilker Park

A rendering of a land bridge across Barton Springs Road.

A rendering of a bridge over Barton Springs Road. Courtesy Design Workshop

A plan to remake the roughly 350-acre Zilker Park, our main central-city play area, faces opposition from some neighbors and environmental groups.

Driving the news: The Austin Parks and Recreation Board will hear public testimony on the proposed Zilker Park Vision Plan tonight at City Hall.

  • The board will make a recommendation to the City Council, which is scheduled to take up the matter in July.

Details: The 234-page draft plan proposes up to three parking garages in the park — on the site of the baseball field on Azie Morton Road, near MoPac and Stratford Drive and beneath the playing fields. Other prospective amenities include:

  • New playgrounds.
A rendering of a proposed play area in Zilker.
A rendering of a proposed play area in Zilker Park. Photo courtesy Design Workshop
  • A picnic area on the north side of the park, in an area that's now home to surface parking.
  • More bathrooms and bike paths.
  • Terracing of banks along Barton Creek.
  • A possible land bridge over Barton Springs Road.
A rendering of the Hillside Theater in Zilker Park
A rendering of a potentially remade Hillside Theater, by Barton Springs Pool, in Zilker. Photo courtesy Design Workshop

The big picture: The debate over the future of Zilker echoes familiar battle lines in Austin over the last couple decades, about whether to keep the city as is or to somehow polish it up.

  • The plan, developed by the planning agency Design Workshop under the guidance of the Austin Parks and Recreation Department, is meant to be a blueprint for the future development of the park — which is exactly why lots of people are anxious about it.

Why it matters: Zilker is Austin's playground, for adults and kids — where you can go for a swim, kick a soccer ball, go for a jog, rent a kayak, attend a concert and take in a bit of theater.

Catch up quick: It's a moment of potential transition.

  • That sprawling sandlot on the northwest side of the park, by MoPac, feels like lost space.
  • The Zilker Zephyr train is sorely missed.
  • Some of the amenities are outdated — the Girl Scouts announced they were ending a beloved day camp at the Zilker Cabin because of a lack of air-conditioning.

What they're saying: "Zilker Park is facing increased ecological degradation, accessibility stresses due to a lack of connected circulation, and overuse in certain areas due to growing visitation and no significant changes to how the park is operated in decades," per the vision plan.

The other side: "The city should not be building concrete temples within the park to provide transitory homes for cars," David Weinberg, a political consultant who lives in Barton Hills, wrote in an opinion piece in the Austin Chronicle.

  • Environmental group Save Our Springs Alliance and members of the Zilker Neighborhood Association opposed to the draft plan have said the city instead should support the alternative Zilker Rewilding Plan, which calls for more trails, woodlands and water features.

Between the lines: Some of the opposition worry that C3 Presents, the producers of ACL Fest, will act as a behind-the-scenes hand in making Zilker more commercially oriented — they're already aggravated that the crown jewel of Austin's park system is shut down for weeks each year for the music festival.

Yes, but: Claire Hempel, a designer with the vision team has told the Chronicle that C3 is "not sitting at the table to make any decisions."

  • As for the garage proposals, she tells Axios "hopefully all three are never needed because of better transit, better bike connectivity (and) other offsite parking options."

What we're watching: If city officials ask voters to support a bond issue to raise money for park improvements.


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