Zilker Metropolitan Park is a beloved City of Austin treasure enjoyed by generations of Austinites. We developed the vision plan because the growth in our community is placing critical stress on the park and its future.
Despite almost three years working with the community to establish a guiding framework for Zilker Park’s restoration, the Zilker Park Vision planning process is being suspended and will not be presented to the City Council at this time. We appreciate the community feedback we received over the years and hope together we can determine a path forward that preserves and protects Zilker Park, ensures equitable access for all who visit, and is embraced by our broader community.
The frequently asked questions below serve as a resource to quickly address key concerns that were raised during the process. Additional questions and responses will be added as needed.
Additional questions and responses to the Parks and Recreation Board can be viewed here (PDF).
- Why do we need a Vision Plan for Zilker Park?
- How did community guide the plan?
- How does the Plan focus on people and nature, not cars?
- Why does the Plan propose moving the Theater?
- What does the Plan say about park management?
- What does the Plan say about special events and concessions?
- What does the Plan say about the environment and ecology?
- What happens next?
- Zilker Park is an urban treasure in critical need
Zilker Park is facing increased ecological degradation, lack of connection across the park, significant parking challenges, and overuse in particular areas of the park, and increased visitation connected with the growth of Austin. The park’s issues will only be amplified as more people move here. Zilker Park is the central park of Austin and, as a metropolitan park, serves the entire community. It is a special site for generations of Austinites and needs active management to ensure it continues to be for generations to come.
Consistent with City Council direction, City staff began working with the community in 2020 to develop the Zilker Park Vision Plan. The Vision Plan is the first comprehensive planning initiative to encompass the park’s 351 acres and associated facilities.
(Draft Zilker Park Vision Plan, p. 25-38)
- Zilker was originally designed to focus on cars, not people
The park was designed in the 1930’s to be a “driving park,” using vehicles to get to each location.
Many of the structures in the park were built before World War II, including the Girls Scout Hut, Sunshine Camp, and the original wooden bathhouse. Barton Springs Bridge was built in 1925 and expanded in 1945. With New Deal funding, work done by the Civilian Conversation Corps focused on building new routes for automobiles to access the park and Barton Springs. Historical aerial photos show many of the roads already in place in 1940.
The roads connecting the buildings and sites at Zilker were designed around cars, and this continues through today. The proposed vision plan aims to shift Zilker Park from cars to people and nature.
Image of the old Barton Springs Bathhouse, 1925
- Balancing ecology and accessibility for all
The draft Vision Plan focuses on a delicate balance between ecological restoration to reverse degradation from overuse and improper use while also ensuring that the park can be accessed by all of Austin as our population continues to grow. The Vision Plan provides a roadmap for the park’s future.
Once an approved vision plan is adopted and funding identified, improvement projects will require additional detailed feasibility studies, environmental studies, and engineering reports before proceeding to the design phase. Community engagement will be part of the design phase for future implementation projects.
(Draft Zilker Park Vision Plan, 199-200).
- 3 years of community input
The Community Engagement phase of the Zilker Park Vision Plan process began in November 2020 and concluded on January 9, 2023. During this engagement period, community members were able to provide input during:
- 6 community meetings,
- 24 small group discussions,
- 122 pop-up events (15 in Zilker Park to connect directly with visitors), and
- More than 250 emails to the Zilker Vision email.
After more than 10,000 responses from community members through surveys, meetings, pop-ups, emails, and other communications, the planning team reviewed, synthesized, and incorporated the feedback into Vision Plan process.
Community members also provided feedback at the five board and commission meetings where commissioners considered community input, discussed, and formulated their recommendations to the City Council.
While the Department has put the process on hold for now, we will continue to strive to make a plan that represents all of Austin and the needs of our growing city.
- Community's Guiding Principles
The guiding principles and goals were finalized with input from the community after the first community meeting. The following principles have driven the planning process and the final proposed draft Vision Plan:
- Nature and Ecology
- History and Culture
- Equity, Diversity, Inclusion
View the full principles and goals here (PDF).
- Boards and Commissions recommended the draft plan
The draft Zilker Park Vision Plan was presented to and received recommendations from the following boards and commissions:
- Pedestrian Advisory Council and Bicycle Advisory Council (joint meeting): March 6, 2023 (Passed unanimously, recommendation, PDF)
- Urban Transportation Commission: April 4, 2023 (Passed unanimously, recommendation, PDF)
- Environmental Commission: April 5, 2023 (Passed 9-1, recommendation, PDF)
- Design Commission: April 13, 2023 (Passed unanimously, recommendation, PDF)
- Parks and Recreation Board: May 22, 2023 (Passed unanimously with additional guidance, recommendation, PDF).
Final approval must come from City Council and is scheduled for their consideration August 31, 2023.
- Prioritizes pedestrians, bicycles, shuttles, and other transit options
The biggest obstacle cited by participants in the first Zilker survey was lack of parking or traffic. The draft Vision Plan emphasizes strategies to reduce the need for parking at Zilker Park, encouraging increased multi-modal transit options, such as shuttles, public transit, cycling, and walking to the park and within the park by adding connections to Zilker and shifting roads for cars to paths for people.
The plan aims to integrate ecology with park use to connect people with nature in ways not seen in decades. The total miles of trails for pedestrians and bicycles would increase from 12.6 miles to 19.5 miles. Roads where cars circle looking for parking, such as Lou Neff Road and parts of Columbus and Andrew Zilker Road would be turned into bike and pedestrian roads.
Efforts to increase off-site parking and a shuttle system are already underway through the Zilker Shuttle in effect right now, and additional efforts continue to identify more possibilities and increase options for public transit through CapMetro and Project Connect.
Parking is still a challenge, but this plan emphasizes people getting to and enjoying Zilker Park outside of their cars.
- Zilker Shuttle evolved from the planning process
For the second summer in a row, the Parks and Recreation Department has used funds from salary savings to provide a shuttle bringing people from One Texas Center where they can park for free to Zilker Park. The shuttle runs from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend on weekends and holidays.
More than 2,000 park visitors have used the shuttle so far in summer 2023.
- Removes ecologically detrimental parking lots
The plan proposes reducing surface parking by removing formal and informal parking lots, returning 8 acres of impervious cover/hardscape into parkland. Assuming the City wishes to keep the same number of existing parking spots, the plan also includes up to three (3) parking garages as an option.
The park’s current surface parking options pose serious environmental concerns. For example:
- Polo Field parking results in contaminants draining straight into the earth;
- Parking on the gravel lot that covers the Butler Landfill poses significant ecological problems with draining to Lady Bird Lake, especially on a subpar parking surface; and
- Other paved surface lots push contaminants straight into Barton Creek and Lady Bird Lake through stormwater runoff.
Removing parking on the Polo Field and the Butler Landfill is a top priority for the City of Austin and the Draft Zilker Park Vision Plan.
Removal of surface parking in these areas and returning them for enjoyment by parkgoers is a critical component of this plan while also ensuring access to visitors who must rely on personal vehicles.
Zilker Park Polo Field parking, May 2023
- Possible garages keep current amount of parking
The plan emphasizes strategies to encourage less reliance on personal vehicles through shuttle service (inside and outside of the park), pedestrian and bicycle trails in the park, new pedestrian and bike bridges to enter the park, and encouraging increasing access by CapMetro buses and Project Connect.
The plan emphasizes each of these improvements as priorities. However, the planning team also acknowledges that one of the top concerns at Zilker by park visitors and community input through the planning process has been a desire for additional parking, especially as Austin continues to grow.
Considering the priorities of access for all of Austin and ecological improvements, the plan identifies the possibility of up to three parking structures in the park to provide a similar number of parking spots that will be lost by removing surface lots such as the Polo Field and Stratford Lot parking areas. Parking garages would reduce impervious cover, densify parking into specific areas of the park, manage runoff from vehicles, and provide access for visitors who rely on personal vehicles to get to the park.
Questions such as the size, prioritization of location, and design of each structure would be considered later after attempts to reduce reliance on personal vehicles are implemented. Parking structures are expensive options with significant challenges in the park, which is why the plan focuses on reducing reliance on personal vehicles first.
- Possible parking garages must undergo additional analysis and community input
The plan proposes up to three parking structures in the park. Each of these locations will undergo significant environmental analysis and feasibility studies before any construction would begin. In addition, a community engagement process would take place during the design phase of any future projects.
- Improves safety along Barton Springs Road; requires traffic study
Barton Springs Road divides Zilker Park and presents challenges to the safety and enjoyment of the park. The vision plan aims to reclaim the park for enjoyment by people and prioritizes pedestrian and bike mobility. In addition to changing internal park roads to pedestrian/bicycle areas, the draft Vision Plan explored:
- Reducing Barton Springs Road from two lanes in each direction to one lane in each direction;
- Adding on-street parallel parking;
- Adding protected bike lanes; and
- Adding a center median that would include drainage enhancements recommended by Watershed Protection Department.
Throughout the decades, Zilker Park was designed and improved around cars. Due to the current nature of Barton Springs Road, which includes high vehicle speeds, there is support for slowing vehicles as they travel through the park.
Before any permanent changes to the road are made, the City will conduct a traffic study and pilot program.
(Draft Zilker Park Vision Plan, p. 163-164)
- Recognizes Barton Springs Road is in the Strategic Mobility Plan
Other streets in Austin are undergoing similar reductions in accordance with the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan, including Manor Road. Projects outside of the scope of the Zilker Park Vision Plan that coincide with the Barton Springs Road proposal in the plan include Azie Morton and Barton Springs Road intersection; Barton Springs Road bridge; and improvements from Azie Morton to Lamar along Barton Springs Road. These projects will influence the final outcomes of the plan’s proposed Barton Springs Road improvements.
- Unsustainable crowds
The Zilker Hillside Theater was built in the 1950’s and provides a performance space to entertain Austinites and visitors with singing, fine arts, and theater presentations.
Back in the 1950’s, Austin’s population was closer to 100,000 residents in comparison to 2023 where Austin is home to more than 1 million residents. The growth of Austin is clearly seen at any performance that takes place at the Beverly S. Sheffield Hillside Theater. Performers and staff are regularly challenged with ensuring accessibility for people with disabilities and managing overcrowding at current shows, regularly exceeding 2,500 capacity with crowds of up to 5,000.
- Multiple uses in Theater area; community open to moving it
During performances, more than 300 cars fill the area next to Barton Springs Pool and the playground area, creating long lines of idling cars. Moving the Theater emerged as an option to address critical needs of ongoing maintenance, reduce the concentration of people and cars in a single area, and provide balance in the park.
Community survey results indicated a significant number (42%) of community members were open to moving the theater. This was considered with additional feedback that 49% preferred “nodes” of park organization instead of “concentrated” amenities (11%) as it is today, (Community Survey #4, #5). The other location option considered was near MoPac on the Butler Landfill, but community members noted the challenges with the noise of MoPac that could affect the performances.
Many community members preferred for the Theater to remain in its current location. With a significant number open to the shift and more expressing a different approach to how amenities are organized in the park, the draft Vision Plan proposes moving the theater for this reason and the ones below.
- Aging infrastructure and maintenance challenges
The Hillside Theater faces significant challenges, especially with maintenance and infrastructure. These challenges include:
- Electrical infrastructure in current location is insufficient for productions
- Issues with aging and limited infrastructure and increasing cost of maintenance
- Stage is too small for existing users, such as community dance groups
- Insufficient backstage space and no respite from heat for performers
Improvements have been made to the existing stage area, but these improvements have not addressed some of the challenges listed above. In addition, as the Theater area continues to age, maintenance and annual renovation costs will continue to increase (more than $75,000 annually and rising), eventually needing to be rebuilt completely. The Theater as it is now is unsustainable for long-term use.
Does the Plan "privatize" the Theater?
- No. The Theater will remain a community asset, managed by Parks Department
The Theater is and will remain a community asset managed by the Parks and Recreation Department’s Museums and Cultural Programs Division. The Theater is used by local groups to put on free shows, drawing diverse audiences from across Austin. Moving and renovating the Theater allows us to meet current audience demands and provides a modern performance space for performers instead of an aging infrastructure that is unable to meet the standards of today.
- C3 Presents/LiveNation/TicketMaster will not manage the park or Theater
The theater will continue to be a community asset managed by the Parks and Recreation Department.
During the community engagement process, C3 Presents – which puts on ACL Music Festival – provided input on how the organization implements the music festival.
LiveNation has a contract with Waterloo Greenway for managing the Moody Amphitheater in Waterloo Park. This went through an extensive community engagement process and City Council approved the agreement as required.
The Zilker Theater is proposed to continue to be a community asset managed by the Parks and Recreation Department.
- Local organizations will continue using the Theater to put on free shows
The Theater at Zilker hosts community shows put on by community groups. These groups bring significant diversity to the park, and the proposed plan would increase this opportunity.
Below is a list of the current users, the majority engaging in inclusive practices:
- Zilker Theatre Productions
- Austin Shakespeare
- Texas Bengali Cultural Alliance
- Austin Dance Ensemble
- Austin Symphonic Band
- Austin Civic Orchestra
- Roy Lozano Ballet Folklorico de Texas
- Oaxaca Arte en Movimiento/Ballet Folklorico de Austin
- Austin ISD Multilingual Education Department
- Westridge Middle School
- Alante Flamenco
- Austin ISD Fine Arts Department
The City Council and the Arts Commission continue to seek increased opportunities for local artists. Moving Zilker Hillside Theater to a new location would allow for greater opportunities for local artists, but the Department recognizes this is only one part of increasing performance space across the city.
- Zilker Park will remain a public park managed by the Parks Department
Zilker Metropolitan Park will remain a public park managed by the City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department. This means that day-to-day operations and maintenance will continue to be managed by the Department, including phasing and implementation of the Vision Plan, overseeing capital improvements, reserved area reservations, and permitting and management of large events (ACL Music Festival, Kite Festival, Blues on the Green, Trail of Lights).
Allegations that the City intends to sell Zilker Park are false. Any attempts to sell any land owned by the City of Austin requires public discussion, consideration and approval by the City Council, and voter approval. Additionally, allegations of “privatizing” the park are also incorrect.
(Draft Zilker Park Vision Plan, p. 209)
- Proposed "umbrella organization" would support park improvements
In a growing city that places more demands on the Parks and Recreation Department, PARD must find ways to streamline operations, increase efficiency, and better leverage outside funding for projects that benefit the public. Among the possible benefits of an “umbrella organization” or “unified nonprofit” are:
- Advocacy for the plan in both the final approved form (early 2023) and as implementation phases are determined by the Austin Parks and Recreation Department.
- Work with the broader parks to campaign for public funds (bond elections, annual budget increases, allocation of previously approved bond funds) for capital improvements, restoration, and expanded operations and maintenance for Zilker and the entire Austin Parks and Recreation system.
- Serve as a main point of contact, coordinating efforts with existing nonprofit partners and focusing on park-wide efforts, including establishing and managing a park-wide volunteer corps. Building on the work of It’s My Park Day, the bi-annual city-wide volunteer workday, to expand regular opportunities park volunteers.
Additional ideas can be found on page 210 of the Draft Zilker Park Vision Plan. The Vision Plan recommendation does not include specific details about organizational structure for the organization, but does suggest exploration of partnership responsibilities with various ideas. As with implementation of other projects proposed in the Vision Plan, future community engagement will be part of the process to evaluate utilizing an umbrella organization.
(Draft Zilker Park Vision Plan, p. 208-10)
- No “umbrella organization” has been selected; it goes through City Council
No organization has been identified or proposed to serve in such a capacity. Any future partner organization that serves in this capacity will go through a public process with final approval and adoption by City Council.
(Draft Zilker Park Vision Plan, pp. 209)
- Nonprofit partnerships reflect community values; require City Council approval
The City of Austin has the ability through its established PARKnerships program, City Council resolution, and state law to enter into agreements with parks nonprofits to provide the public with a range of services and benefits.
In 2020, in response to Council Direction and Department Long-Range Plan recommendations, PARD spent 18 months researching park partnerships across the state and nation, meeting with various stakeholders regarding our current partnerships, and drafting a program and policy that reflects Austin’s values and commitment to our green spaces. The PARKnerships Program is guided by Austin’s values and commitment to trust, equity, collaboration, and stewardship. Such agreements lay out roles and responsibilities for the city and nonprofits, and ensure coordination, collaboration and city oversight.
Each agreement for a partnership for public good goes through a public process with final approval and adoption by City Council.
- Plan does not propose reducing or increasing special events
Zilker Park has hosted community events since the 1930s and earlier, including swim meets, holiday pageants, celebrations, and regular dances. Some events were originally managed by City of Austin entities, such as the Trail of Lights, the Kite Festival, and the Zilker Hillside Theater. However, as the population has grown, as well as interest in these events, the City of Austin is no longer able to manage these events. These events are run by nonprofits, such as The Trail of Lights Foundation, Friends of ABC Kite Fest, and Zilker Theatre Productions.
Blues on the Green, the free summer concert series managed by ACL Radio (formerly KGSR) began at the Arboretum and moved to Zilker Park in 2000. Austin City Limits Music Festival has been in Zilker Park since 2002 and is owned and managed by the Austin-based company C3 Presents, a for-profit company that produces other music festivals and concerts across the country. It is true that Live Nation Entertainment purchased a controlling interest in C3 Presents in 2014. However, the planning team’s contact with C3 Presents has been limited to conversations with their local office and other Zilker Park event organizers.
The draft Vision Plan does not propose any increases in special events or reduction of them.
- City ordinance limits events in Zilker; no changes proposed
Zilker Park is limited by ordinance to the number of special events it can host. City Ordinance Section 8-1-15 designates a maximum of 24 special event days for Zilker per calendar year, not including set and up take down. Consistent with the code, Zilker Park is limited to only hosting the following reoccurring special events:
- Zilker Park Kite Festival (1 day)
- Zilker Garden Festival (2 days)
- Blues on the Green (4 days)
- Zilker Relays (1 day)
- ACL Festival (6 days)
- Trail of Lights 5k (1 day)
- Trail of Lights Event Nights (14 days)
The draft vision plan does not call for any additional special event days in the park or additional opportunities for event organizers such as C3 Presents or Live Nation.
- No new permanent structures for concessions are proposed
The draft Vision Plan proposes a seasonal concessions area near Lou Neff Road west of the Great Lawn. This is the only proposed additional concession in the park, added to provide services to families using this area. Future determinations of contracting and selections will be determined at a later date through the contract and concessions process.
- No changes to environmental protections
The draft Vision Plan includes a site analysis which covers site characteristics, ecology, plant communities, applicable land use regulations, and more. Any changes to regulations require Council consideration and approval for each project that may be implemented.
- More environmental analysis and feasibility studies are needed
Any projects requiring construction, such as the proposed land bridge, pedestrian and bike bridges, and possible parking garages, will require additional environmental analysis and feasibility studies to ensure compliance with environmental protections.
- Restores Barton Creek Shoreline
The restoration of the banks of Barton Creek is one of the most critical projects. It is envisioned that safe, accessible walkways elevated up from the creek level would be built with hardscape areas for water access. Planted areas would allow for restoration of vegetation and for future generations of heritage trees to be established. Pedestrian and bike bridges along Barton Creek at Toomey Road, the west side of Barton Springs Pool, and a crossing south of the Barton Springs Road bridge are included in this zone. These connections are vital to establish accessibility not only to this area but to the entire park.
(Draft Zilker Park Vision Plan, p. 202)
- Reduces impervious cover
Impervious cover is the area of any surface that prevents water from entering into the ground, such as roads, parking areas, concrete paving and buildings with some exceptions as dictated by the Environmental Criteria Manual.
The planning team calculates that there are currently 49.3 acres of impervious cover in the park. The draft Vision Plan is estimated to result in 34.7 acres.
- Ecological restoration encourages a healthy ecology
Ecological restoration in Zilker Park, sometimes called “Ecological Uplift,” is the result of repairing and restoring natural systems through active management. This may include increased biodiversity, increased soil health, greater water cycling, and more robust human/nature interactions. This may be seen at Zilker Park through:
- Restored plant communities, including forests with multiple levels of vegetation
- Increased biodiversity in a parking lot through the planting of pollinator plants
- Enhanced climate resiliency through additional tree canopies and shade
- The inclusion of green stormwater infrastructure that allows water to seep into the ground, cleans pollutants before entering the water system, and supports photosynthesis
- The Zilker Park Vision Plan is on hold for now
Zilker Metropolitan Park is a beloved City of Austin treasure enjoyed by generations of Austinites. We developed the vision plan because the growth in our community is placing critical stress on the park and its future.
Despite almost three years working with the community to establish a guiding framework for Zilker Park’s restoration, the Zilker Park Vision planning process is being suspended and will not be presented to the City Council. We appreciate the community feedback we received over the years and hope together we can determine a path forward that preserves and protects Zilker Park, ensures equitable access for all who visit, and is embraced by our broader community.
- Implementation will take years and more community engagement
This is a long-term plan that will serve as a high-level roadmap for the City and will take years to implement.
As part of the draft vision plan, the planning team identified near-term, mid-term, and long-term priorities and aligned those with the recommendations for implementation. These recommendations will continue to be evaluated.
Once an approved vision plan is adopted and funding identified, projects such as the land bridge, welcome plaza, Barton Springs Road improvements design, and the lower Barton Creek bank remediation, will require additional detailed feasibility studies, environmental analysis, and engineering reports before proceeding to the design phase which also includes community engagement.
(Draft Zilker Park Vision Plan, p. 199-200)
- Costs will be determined closer to implementation
The draft plan applies benefit and cost-relation analysis as a strategy rather than assigning a price tag in today’s valuation to each project area.
Due to inflation, supply chain issues, and the quantity of construction projects currently happening in our region, estimates of probable cost are not useful when they are more than six months old. The range of costs provided in the draft plan gives on estimated target, but detailed opinions of probable cost would be done at the time of planning and design of that element, so the City can properly fund the expected improvements.
(Draft Zilker Park Vision Plan, p. 197-189, 207-212)
- Funding sources to be determined
The draft plan identifies a variety of funding sources for projects sitewide including the General Fund, General Bonds, Parkland Dedication Funds, grants, and partnerships, both departmental and external.
How the proposed improvements are funded, and the order of implementation, would be dictated by the availability of these funds, opportunities, and the prioritization of the project.
- How does this affect other park plans, especially parks in East Austin?
Significant work on planning and implementation of plans is already underway at many parks throughout East Austin. These parks include:
- Givens District Park (implementation ongoing since 2021)
- Walter E. Long Metropolitan Park (implementation begins 2023)
- John Treviño Jr. Metropolitan Park (implementation begins 2023)
- Bolm District Park (planning process will begin 2023)
This work does not include the numerous neighborhood parks and work at recreation centers and museums and cultural centers.
Work is needed throughout Austin to ensure our city parks are available for generations of enjoyment and ongoing climate change mitigation.