Editor's note: This story has been updated to include a statement from the city.

Weeks before Austin City Council was set to take a final vote on the controversial Zilker Park Vision Plan, city officials announced the proposed framework is effectively dead following more than two years of development and public debate.

What's happening?

After three council members released a statement opposing the draft vision plan Aug. 7, Mayor Kirk Watson announced interim City Manager Jesús Garza had ended the planning process.

City officials said contention among Austinites over high-profile elements in the plan led to it being shelved. Going forward, Watson said the city will take a break before circling back to popular items while trying to reach common ground on more disputed aspects.

“My recommendation is that we cool off for a spell. ... We could all benefit from a little time and perspective. And then, we can start working together on the recommendations in the plan that have consensus,” Watson said in his newsletter.

The backstory

Citing its status as a treasured city landmark that was being “loved to death,” the Austin Parks and Recreation Department kicked off the creation of a long-range vision plan for managing and improving Zilker Metropolitan Park in late 2020.

Led by the city and consultants with Design Workshop, that $600,000 planning effort stretched on for more than two years through multiple rounds of community engagement. As a vision framework came together, the plan was presented to the public through a series of often-contentious public hearings before it was set to reach the council dais for a vote in late August.

The most recent public hearing over the plan drew dozens of Austinites to City Hall, most of whom argued against its adoption, following several similar reviews earlier this spring.

Many of the most prominent initiatives in the plan and the joint nonprofit structure drew stiff opposition from some nearby neighborhood residents in addition to community members from across the city and local environmental groups. Some also criticized aspects of the planning process and the handling of resident feedback.

Others have stated support for the slate of proposed upgrades aimed at environmental restoration and addressing the park's overuse as well as the creation of a long-awaited overall blueprint for Zilker.

The details

As developed by community members and consultants, the wide-ranging plan covers many areas of need and improvements for Zilker that would've potentially been rolled out over the decades to come. The draft vision plan may be viewed here.

Those dozens of items range from smaller landscaping and visitor upgrades to larger-scale undertakings across the park, including the closure of roadways and the development of major new facilities, such as parking garages and an amphitheater on the park's Great Lawn.

The Zilker Park Vision Plan proposes several changes and natural improvements around the park. (Courtesy city of Austin)

The framework also called for some local nonprofits to become involved in park operations in collaboration with the city, a similar arrangement to those Austin has in place for resources such as the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail and some other civic parks.

The plan didn't lock in timelines or funding for any of its proposals, all of which would've likely gone through environmental reviews, budgetary consideration and further community deliberations before moving forward.

What they're saying

In advance of the City Council vote scheduled for Aug. 31, Council Members Ryan Alter, Zo Qadri and Paige Ellis—the three city officials whose jurisdictions include or border the 351-acre park—released a joint statement Aug. 7 announcing they wouldn't back the plan in its current form.

While saying Austin must effectively steward Zilker into the future with a focus on accessibility and sustainability, they said certain pieces of the draft framework ended up leading to too much disagreement and concern across town.

“We know that the Zilker Park Vision Plan proposes 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,” the trio wrote in the statement. “We know the challenges Zilker Park is facing will not go away on their own, but we do not see a path forward for the Zilker Vision Plan and therefore cannot support it.”

In a separate statement, Alter said the many disputes over the plan led to his disapproval of moving forward.

“As the District 5 Council Member, one of my most significant responsibilities is ensuring that Zilker Park is accessible for future generations. I don't take that lightly. Zilker deserves a vision that unites not divides our community,” he said. “Unfortunately, that isn't where we find ourselves today. After many conversations and much thought, I cannot support the Zilker Vision Plan.”

Soon after, Watson sent out a newsletter announcing the plan wouldn't be put up for a council vote. He said the current iteration didn't stem from the right kind of process and that there's no intention for city officials to consider it at any point.

“As the plan is shelved, we should recognize that really good people can often disagree. A lot of people and groups worked hard to do something big and positive for our community. And our city staffers have put a lot into this process, as well. I truly appreciate and respect their efforts,” Watson wrote. “In this case, I see people who share a love our home and have good motivations all agreeing that Zilker Park is special—an Austin jewel. They also agree that the park needs our care and protection, and folks from all over town deserve access to it. However, they disagree on how to achieve these important purposes.”

While noting the disagreements the plan had sparked in the community, Watson also said he believes that many of the underlying goals behind some controversial elements are valid and can still be explored in the future.

He pointed to the two most controversial proposals—the new parking garages and theater—as ideas stemming from the need to address equitable park access and update an outdated facility, respectively.

“I believe strongly that we can—and must—meet our objectives to preserve and nurture the ecological sanctity of this place while assuring equitable access to all Austinites,” he said.

Quote of note

"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," a city spokesperson said in a statement. "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."