A Letter from Austin #28: Parceling Out a Paradise

Bruce McCandless III
6 min readApr 28, 2023

The City of Austin Has Big Plans for Zilker Park

There are changes in store for Zilker Park. Unfortunately, many of them are bad.

I’ve been hanging around Zilker since August of 1979. I’ve swum in Barton Springs, kayaked and tubed Barton Creek, chased my kids across the Great Lawn, jumped off the pedestrian bridge over the creek, run in the Zilker Relays, tried out for the Austin Huns rugby team (ouch!), ridden the Zilker Zephyr more times than I care to admit, served as president of the Zilker Summer Musical during its fiftieth anniversary year, and played numerous games of Ultimate Frisbee on various patches of green. I’ve written two novels set, in part, in Zilker Park.

You name it, I’ve done it. If there were a Zilker Park merit badge, I’d be wearing it — proudly.

So would lots of other folks. Everyone loves the park. In fact, there are weekend afternoons when everyone seems to be loving it all at once. It’s almost impossible on those days to find a parking spot and get to the nonsensical business of swimming, running, or kite-flying. Due in large part to the park’s popularity, and the car and foot traffic this involves, the City of Austin is considering making major changes to Zilker. You can take a look at these proposed changes in the so-called Zilker Metropolitan Park Vision Plan, available here: https://www.austintexas.gov/sites/default/files/files/Parks/Planning_and_Development/Zilker_Vision/Zilker%20Park%20Vision%20Plan%20Draft%20updated%202023-03-22-web.pdf.

The obvious question is, If the park is so cool and popular, why does the city want to change it? But to be fair, there are some good ideas in the plan. For example, the city wants to address the continuing erosion of the banks of Barton Creek below the Barton Springs spillway. I agree that this area is a mess, and needs attention. The plan would also “re-green” — my word, not theirs — areas of the park, including a section just east of MoPac, south of Ladybird Lake. This area, which used to be a landfill, is unsightly, unhealthy, and mostly unused. It would be better off as green space than as…whatever it is now. There’s also a plan to build a “land bridge” over Barton Springs Road to connect the northern and southern sections of the park and thereby increase accessibility, according to the planners. This might be cool. On the other hand, there is a crossing on Barton Springs Road, where blinking red lights allow for pedestrians to go back and forth. It would certainly be cheaper, and probably just as effective, to make this a crossing with a full-fledged set of signals. It seems to me that building a land bridge would be pricey, and would necessitate the closing of Barton Springs Road for some indeterminate period. Still, I give the planners credit for imagination on this one.

But there are bad ideas in the plan as well. Parking garages, for instance. Planners think the park needs as many as three new parking garages, which would allow for elimination of existing surface parking and the conversion of some of these areas to grassland. Let’s start with the obvious objections. Parking garages are expensive, permanent, and dirty. They’re great spots for petty larceny and shadowy intimidation. They stink.

Now for particulars. Probably the most problematic of the three proposed garages would be situated on Azie Morton Road, a narrow thoroughfare that already bottlenecks traffic getting in and out of the Barton Hills neighborhood. A garage with entrances and exits onto Azie Morton would be an expensive traffic headache. This garage would also be near the Sunken Garden, site of a spring just outside the Barton Springs pool area. Construction near the Sunken Garden risks fouling the spring water. Last time I checked, that was a bad thing. Planners have proposed construction of a second garage near the proposed land bridge. This one would be underground. As might be expected, the idea of major excavation within a few hundred yards of Barton Springs strikes most people as another Really Terrible Idea. A third garage — less controversial, though still as ugly as a cedar stump — would be built near or possibly even under MoPac.

Another bad idea is to relocate the hillside theatre — longtime home of the Zilker Summer Musical, now celebrating its 65th year — from its current digs near Barton Springs to a site at the northern terminus of the notional land bridge in the southwest corner of the Great Lawn. An illustration on page 11 of the Plan shows the new amphitheater taking up a very modest sliver of the lawn. This is, if not actively deceptive, at least unintentionally misleading. It’s not how things would work in practice. First of all, the northern ramp of the land bridge would itself take up at least a small portion of the lawn. The amphitheater would be in addition to that minor impingement. What we’re talking about is not a few folding chairs set out in the grass, but rather a large permanent structure, with planners saying the new theatre (presumably similar in shape to the new amphitheater in Waterloo Park) could serve up to 5,000 attendees. Read that number again. Factor in the stage, dressing facilities, bathrooms, and a lighting and sound control facility, and you get a sprawling entertainment complex. That’s a lot of development, and it eliminates a lot of grass.

One problem with this notion is that it would eliminate a healthy chunk of the green space that so many Austinites — soccer players, dog walkers, sunbathers, picnickers, and frisbee throwers — cherish. Walk around the lawn on any given Saturday afternoon, and you will see diversity and inclusiveness in action. While the Great Lawn is empty space, it is not unused space. It is in fact heavily used by people like me: 9-to-5ers, weekend warriors, plumbers and programmers, soccer players from Senegal, visitors from Temple, sunbathing sorority girls and quidditch players doing quidditch things. People from all nations and ethnic groups can be found running and sweating and laughing together on the grass. Recreation may not be the most important function of the park. Preserving Barton Springs is, and always will be. But in my mind, and the minds of many others, recreation — simple, unstructured, and free — is not far behind.

One final “bad idea”: Park planners want to encircle the Rugby Field with a road and build a Welcome Plaza for visitors between the field and the creek. This seems completely unnecessary. In my view, the Park itself a welcome plaza. The fields are an open invitation to slow down, to stop by, to come in. The trees are the docents, and the breeze is your inter-active tour guide. Why spend money and tie up existing facilities for months by creating something we don’t need?

These changes aren’t set in stone. They’re not even set in wet cement. The city’s Design Commission raised some important questions about the plan at a meeting in early April, and asked for revisions before taking a vote on whether to approve it. The Parks Board has yet to approve the plan, and a City Council vote on the matter is still some months in the future. But big changes are being considered — and if you want to weigh in on them, now is your chance. Please consider attending the next meeting of the Parks Board, which is currently scheduled to take place at City Hall on May 22, with the time yet to be determined but probably around 6 p.m. If you’d rather not do that, write up your thoughts about the Vision Plan and send them to your city councilperson. They’re going to be sensitive to the thoughts of their constituents. And don’t take my objections as gospel, by the way. I’m not an expert. I’m just a longtime lover of the park. Take a look for yourself, and make your views known!

If you do agree with me, though, please ask the city to resist making Zilker Park into a sort of outdoor mall/entertainment space with cement-sealed parking. The everyday park users with whom I’ve conversed about this matter think less is more, and that Zilker is fine the way it is — green, open, and, most of all, available to stressed-out urbanites looking for some fresh air and a chance to read a book or chase a dog around. That’s what a whole lot of us love about the park: the invitation to avoid doing anything useful, or profitable, or educational. A place to feel the sun on our faces and smell the fresh-cut grass. A moment to hear the laughter of a friend or a child or spouse.

Preserve that, in my opinion, and you’ve saved what makes Zilker Park great. This greatness isn’t just a “vision.” It’s reality. It’s a blessing available to us right now. We should all think once, twice, and then again before we start trying to change it.



Bruce McCandless III

I'm an Austin-based writer trying to figure out space, science, and Texas politics. For more, see: www.brucemccandless.com