Parks Board Recommends Zilker Plan Despite Misinformation-Fueled Outrage

Barton Springs Pool (Photo by John Anderson)

The Zilker Park Vision Plan has cleared its last hurdle before heading to City Council in July.

After more than 6 hours of contentious public testimony involving booing, clapping, call-and-response, and music, the Parks and Recreation Board (PARB) voted 7-3 to recommend the approval of the plan after midnight Monday. In its resolution, the board stresses that the Parks and Recreation Department will retain ownership of the park, that Council expressly encourages nonprofit partnerships, and that nonprofit partnership models are used as best practice nationwide in Central Park, Prospect Park, Golden Gate Park, and Hermann Park in Houston, among others.

One concern from those that oppose the plan is that the nonprofit model would allow Zilker to get disproportionate amounts of money to the detriment of parks in other parts of town. But historically, nonprofit gifts to PARD (including ACL Fest donations) have actually been spread across underserved parks, or to amenities reaching the end of their useful life, a PARD spokesperson told the Chronicle. PARD’s project manager on the plan, Greg Montes, says, “The thing is, we have completed vision plans for parks on the other side of town [with] funding already earmarked for implementation, because they all have plans. But we also need to spend money in Zilker to address issues the park is suffering from.”

Year-Round Music Venue on the Great Lawn?

After the debacle of the Save Zilker Park Instagram last week, another anonymous website popped up over the weekend, which mentions a big proposed change the opposition has been flagging: a 5,000-seat arena on the Great Lawn. That refers to the proposed relocation of the Zilker Hillside Theater to the edge of the Great Lawn near Stratford Drive. The theater’s most frequent users – Zilker Theatre Productions (ZTP) and the city’s Cultural Arts Division, which co-manages the space with PARD – say the move is sorely needed. Currently 2,500-3,000 people visit the space, and “some of the audiences that [ZTP] has attracted, like for Sound of Music, were upwards of 5,000 people… hanging from trees, literally, people seated on top of the rocky hillside where they were imperiled,” says Division Manager of Museums and Cultural Programs Laura Esparza. “Any kind of emergency with that number of people becomes very difficult to respond to. We’re concerned about providing access to emergency vehicles.”

Aside from safety issues, Esparza explains that the 1957-built stage “is not on solid ground right now. And because we are so close to Barton Springs, there are code restrictions on how much concrete we can pour in order to stabilize the stage,” referring to the Save Our Springs ordinance. Jonathan Ogren, who consulted on the environmental aspects of the plan, says much of the plan moves things out of proximity to the springs. “The current theatre is in the Barton Creek watershed,” says Ogren, where “there is substantial impervious cover – right outside the pool entrance, [and] right up at the rugby fields draining directly into Barton Creek, there’s a huge parking lot.” The plan restores at least two acres of that to woodland if the theatre moves. Cost-wise, Esparza says, “it always costs less to build new than to refurbish something that is 66 years old, and was never meant to last as long as it did.”

However, moving it to the Great Lawn is not a sure thing, and Esparza says she’d be open to other locations. (PARB also recommended moving it elsewhere.) The fear of 5,000 permanent seats on the Great Lawn, furthermore, is simply unfounded: “We’re not talking about permanent seating at all. If the stage is elevated, then you can accommodate seating on the grass. No permanent seating.” As far as C3 (ACL Fest’s parent company) using the new theatre to hold year-round ACL – “It’s a conspiracy theory. We have never had a conversation with ACL about the location of the theatre, period.” ZTP’s Mac Ragsdale agrees: “People are just convinced that the whole Vision Plan is being guided by C3, and it absolutely is not.”

Overall, misinformation online has been so great that Mayor Pro Tem Paige Ellis and Council Members Ryan Alter, Zo Qadri, Vanessa Fuentes, and José Velásquez issued a joint statement over the weekend clarifying that “the draft plan, in no way, sets out a path to privatization of this beloved public green space. It also does not call for any additional events in the parks, nor does it include corporate partnerships.” The team has also stressed that this vision plan is a nonbinding framework, not a mandate, and has made cost/benefit analyses that show which construction projects would be most likely to occur within 1-3 years of the plan’s approval. Higher benefit, lower cost projects include erosion controls, connecting the trails system, closing Lou Neff and Andrew Zilker road to vehicles, and more bathrooms. Next would come the shuttle service, Barton Springs Road improvements, and formalizing Barton Creek access.

Who Asked For This?

Another of the most commonly asked questions of the opposition to the Zilker Park Vision Plan is: “Who asked for this?” Council had an answer in the statement this weekend – they did. The Vision Plan dates back to a 2018 Council resolution creating the Zilker Park Working Group to study parking issues, which culminated in a 2019 report that grew into the formalized citywide process beginning in 2020.

When asked about the parking garages solution, perhaps the most opposed aspect of the plan other than the nonprofit idea, Montes told the Chronicle, “I think that people want things to stay the same, but there’s a cost associated with that. If we leave the parking as it is today, that means that people are going to continue to park on [grass] along Azie Morton and on the Great Lawn. The reality is that people all over the city cannot rely on public transit 100% to get around or even to the park.”

“Ideally, we have a huge public transit system that can bring everybody who wants to come to Zilker with their coolers, with their lawn chairs,” says Ogren. “But that’s not happening tomorrow, [or] for 10 or 20 years. What do we need to do to allow people to get there from all over Austin within the coming decades?”

Watch for more Chronicle coverage on the Zilker plan leading up to the Council vote July 22.

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