Initiated late last summer by City Council, the Zilker vision planning process officially kicked off in early 2021 and has since moved through several small-group and public forums as well as an online survey that generated thousands of responses. The approval of a final vision plan, which will tie together aspects of the park's history, ecology, accessibility and growth for a suite of recommendations to be considered by city officials and planners, is not expected until next spring at the earliest.
According to the city, Zilker is now visited daily by thousands of guests for access to amenities ranging from trails and waterways to sports facilities and special events. Gregory Montes, program coordinator at the Austin Parks and Recreation Department, said the park's status and attention have also come with a rising tide of issues such as accessibility and environmental restoration the new plan will be crafted to take on.
“I think the overall state of the park is that it’s probably loved to death. It’s extremely popular, and so it’s experiencing high visitation numbers right now, and I think that, that is really impacting the park," Montes said.
The city has already identified some clear needs at Zilker, such as restoration of damaged portions of the property and the expansion of parking and other mobility components. With those in mind however, Montes also said Austin and consultants with Design Workshop—contracted at up to $600,000 to facilitate the plan—need ongoing public consideration of the park's future to reflect the diverse desires of its users.
The initial virtual survey for the vision planning process showed thousands of respondents who were attracted mainly to the park's natural amenities and signature events, and who had mixed opinions on their performance. While many natural features were shown as being among survey-takers' favorites, components such as trails and natural areas were top areas also being marked for improvement.
Comments solicited through the survey and the project's first open public meeting in June were also mixed on topics ranging from the expansion of park facilities, the presence of larger events such as the Austin City Limits festival and how parking should be incorporated into the park's landscape.
“When you have over 2 million people visiting the park [annually], they’re going to have ideas; they’re going to have a vision; they’re going to have opinions," Montes said. "It’s only fair that we take in all that input and really process it to get a better understanding of what is rising to the top in terms of importance to the community that uses this park.”
For now, the city is moving ahead with more public engagement opportunities to gather as much feedback as possible for the crafting of the first comprehensive plan in the 350-acre park's century-plus history. Project leaders are planning to visit each City Council district throughout July to speak in person with residents about the vision plan as well, and more community meetings and pop-ups are planned through the remainder of 2021.
Montes said a finalized plan is expected to begin moving toward a green light from council next spring, although the focus on Zilker could stretch the city's approval process out over several months.
“As we continue to get closer and closer and move the ball down the field, and we get closer to the approval process where we go to boards and commissions, sometimes our plans start to stall out because of concerns that people are bringing," Montes said. "With this much attention and visitation and as much of the status that it carries throughout the city, I would imagine that once we start getting closer to that point of approval process, we’re probably going to experience some of that. But the hope is that we’ll work through those with the boards and commissions ... early next year."
More information on the vision plan, project materials and public meeting details are available through the city of Austin webpage. Anyone interested in sharing their experiences at Zilker may also contribute thoughts through the plan's SpeakUp Austin engagement page.