Update, August 8: The Zilker Park Vision Plan is now on hold indefinitely. Though the Austin City Council had been set to vote on the plan on August 31, Mayor Kirk Watson announced in his newsletter that discussion of the controversial proposal has been tabled. The news follows a joint statement by three city council members, who wrote that the project led to “irreconcilable differences.”

Watson agreed. “My recommendation is that we cool off for a spell,” he wrote. “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. However, this plan wasn’t the right course and it’s time for it to be ended.”

Though it’s hard to imagine today, there was a time, not so long ago, when it was not uncommon to find Zilker Park’s Great Lawn almost entirely devoid of people. But after more than a decade of nonstop population growth in Austin, the bright green savanna at the heart of the city more often resembles New York’s Central Park on a spring day. With its daily assortment of picnickers, dog walkers, sand volleyball teams, slackline walkers, and dubstepping fire twirlers, the park is one of the last spaces where the city still feels communal and, on occasion, a little weird. But the influx of park-goers has brought with it a certain carelessness, one that strikes at the core of the park’s historic, conservation-oriented spirit. 

On particularly busy days, it’s not uncommon to see vehicles parked illegally on top of century-old tree roots. Trash bins overflow with pizza boxes and White Claw cans, and, in areas frequented by dog walkers, the lawn is often strewn with hardened chunks of feces. 

The rock island at the center of the park used to be a quiet place to climb and contemplate. Now it’s the preferred backdrop for aspiring social media influencers to hawk CBD oils, set up turntables, and lead large-scale workout classes. A visitor to the park may, at any time, find themselves an unwitting extra in someone’s personal branding campaign as drones buzz overhead, filming the theatrics for Instagram.

A few hundred yards away, trash-filled homeless camps have begun appearing beside pristine springs that are home to the city’s federally endangered salamanders. Just down the hill in Barton Creek, where no more than a handful of canoes used to lazily drift, motorized boats ferry binge-drinking bros through the water, flouting local law with their speakers on blast. Often, they’re surrounded by a selfie-snapping flotilla of paddleboarders, kayakers, tourists, and revelers whose presence is gradually destroying the shoreline, experts say, hastening erosion that is killing trees and funneling pollutants into the waterway. Each October, during Austin City Limits Music Festival, 450,000 attendees pummel the park for two weekends in a row. The festival’s stages are now so large and heavy that they’ve compacted the park’s soil, killing trees. Together with the Trail of Lights, another multimillion-dollar revenue generator, large portions of the park are closed to the public for nearly three months each year. Even without a new generation of visitors—so many of whom treat the park as an outdoor extension of the city’s new nonstop party culture—Zilker would be overdue for an epic facelift. 

It’s probably tempting to dismiss these observations as yet another nostalgia-fueled rant about how much Austin has transformed itself. But the truth is that it has become increasingly clear to longtime visitors, ecological experts, and city officials that Texans are gradually “loving the park to death,” as one recent environmental report put it. Thanks to more than 1.3 million annual visitors, combined with massive festivals and the growing threat of climate change, the iconic 351-acre green space is not just suffering—its future is in doubt. “The park’s natural systems cannot sustain the visitors they’re receiving,” said Jonathan Ogren, an environmental consultant who runs the Siglo Group, which produced a comprehensive natural resource inventory of Zilker Park in 2021. “We don’t have the infrastructure in place or the long-term direction for people to know how to use the park space without also harming it.”

A rendering of the proposed land bridge connecting the Great Lawn to Barton Springs.
A rendering of the proposed land bridge connecting the Great Lawn to Barton Springs. Courtesy of City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department

It’s not all bad news. There is, at the very least, widespread consensus that Zilker is in dire need of assistance. But what that help looks like—and how much it costs—has become the latest chapter in a long-running and increasingly hostile debate about how much Austin should cling to the best parts of its past as it prepares for an increasingly crowded future. In an attempt to ready Austin for the metropolis it’s quickly becoming, in November 2022 city leaders unveiled the Zilker Park Vision Plan, a slick $200 million proposal that calls for a dramatic reimagining of the space. The plan envisions a less car-centric city, where nature is calibrated to address the needs of a bustling and diverse population. That means improving accessibility around the park by building new trails, bridges, and restrooms; restoring natural woodlands; supporting wildlife; decreasing impervious cover; and building a welcome center. But if the plan’s eye-catching renderings are any indication, future Austin also appears to be a more upscale environment. No longer a semitamed natural setting where a visitor might stumble upon a slacker smoking a joint at a drum circle outside Barton Springs, the image’s modern aesthetic resembles a landscaped backyard frequented by a Silicon Hills CEO. 

For months now, a series of neighborhood and grassroots environmental groups have relentlessly lobbied city officials to reject the Vision Plan in favor of an alternative plan that places the park’s environmental health over the city’s commercial interests. Eliminating major construction projects entirely, their plan would turn 75 acres of existing parkland into natural areas, letting nature take the lead in decreasing erosion, increasing shade, and rehabilitating soils—a process known as “rewilding.” In their eyes, the park doesn’t need more polish so much as it needs protection: from pollution, from the inevitable crowds, and, perhaps most urgently, from a rapidly heating climate. Lately, these advocates find themselves asking a question that Austin has conveniently avoided in recent decades: Why spend hundreds of millions to dramatically reimagine a place that is already beloved much the way it already is? “Nobody is saying leave Zilker alone and don’t touch it,” said Robin Rather, vice president of the Zilker Neighborhood Association and one of the major proponents of the alternative plan for rewilding the park. “People are saying protect that water, implement a climate mitigation strategy, and help people have a great experience with more playgrounds, bathrooms, and basic amenities that connect them to nature instead of selling out the park to commercial interests.” 

Like simultaneous local debates about zoning and transportation, the fight over the Vision Plan has been amplified by a pervasive feeling among longtime Austinites that their city, and all that it once stood for, has been hijacked by a confluence of powerful interests ranging from real estate developers and technology companies to self-interested politicians and event companies. Though the controversial plan is more than a month away from being voted on (on August 31), the rhetoric swirling around the proposal has adopted a tenor you’d expect to find during the final stretch of a high-stakes political campaign. In neighborhoods surrounding the park, signs expressing outrage about the plan have begun appearing in front yards: “No development. No Monetization. No construction. No privatization. No non-profit. No garages. No Greed,” the signs read. In May, more than 150 people filled city council chambers to protest the vision plan with singing, booing, and jeering. One man—who appeared to be under the false impression the park was being paved over with concrete—wore a unicorn horn on his head to symbolize he was one of the last born-and-raised Austinites. “This place can barely keep the kiddie train—that’s been gone for years—so I don’t really trust y’all to do anything else,” he said as the crowd broke into laughter.

Online, accusations of corruption, negligence, and outright lying have supplanted rational debate. On Instagram, at least a half-dozen local organizations have mounted an effective psychological operations campaign to turn the public against the Vision Plan. The accounts post everything from TikTok-style videos highlighting the park’s enduring beauty to clips from city council meetings and deep, nerdy dives arguing that the plan’s carbon impact numbers are grossly inaccurate. “Either the consultants are negligent or lying,” the same video ominously notes. A parody account has suggested that, under the Vision Plan, the Philosophers’ Rock statue outside Barton Springs will be demolished via a “controlled explosion” before being replaced by an even larger monument honoring the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The monument, the post semijokingly asserts, is another example of the continued “Californication of Austin.” 

But the most controversial elements of the Vision Plan would render a shirtless Anthony Kiedis statue forgettable by comparison. They include a pedestrian bridge over Lady Bird Lake and a land bridge connecting the Great Lawn to Barton Springs Road, making it easier to access the pool, as well as three hulking parking garages; the latter would cost $60 million to construct, though some estimates are even higher. Some critics argue the bridge over the lake isn’t in the public interest and is instead a means of helping ACL move crowds in and out of Zilker more efficiently. The proposed garages have raised complicated environmental concerns (about potential runoff into the water and the presence of underground caves) that have yet to be explored via a feasibility study. One of the three would be a short distance from a new state-of-the-art amphitheater to be built on the southwest corner of the Great Lawn that will support up to five thousand attendees. Offering a postcardesque view of downtown, the prime location has led critics to conclude the two structures would be used for an unending slate of commercial events—the centerpiece of a new “entertainment district.” ACL and city officials vehemently deny such claims, arguing that the amphitheater, which will replace the aging Zilker Hillside Theater, will be exclusively reserved for free local theater and cultural performances. 

Though the city council still appears likely to approve the Vision Plan, opponents of the new amphitheater—and the parking garages—have a powerful ally on their side: Mayor Kirk Watson. In his June newsletter, Watson said both items would “greatly disrupt the special place,” referring to the Great Lawn. “We’ve proven you don’t need such a thing to have amazing shows there,” the mayor wrote. “And we just opened a pretty cool amphitheater in downtown at Waterloo Park. Plus, we can, and should, upgrade and make improvements at the current Hillside Theatre.”

Though Watson’s newsletter struck a neutral tone that highlighted the merits of both the Vision Plan and the “rewilding” plan, a compromise appears unlikely. Tensions have been especially high since fans of the Vision Plan blamed opponents for circulating an inaccurate claim that the proposal would allow the city to “sell off” portions of the park to private interests like Live Nation and Ticketmaster. Robin Rather and other opponents of the Vision Plan have tried to dispel the viral claim—blaming it on an outsider’s Instagram post that they had no control over—but the incident, they said, has allowed their opponents to frame them as conspiratorial propagandists. They worry that it has also distracted from one of their major critiques about the Vision Plan: the idea that an umbrella nonprofit tasked with managing the park lacks transparency and a leadership structure, raising concerns about the influence commercial interests and private donors will wield in a future Zilker Park. “Nobody who has paid attention thinks they’re selling the park, but we do believe that they’re ‘selling out’ the park,” Rather said. Critics of the Vision Plan are not the only ones concerned about a nonprofit umbrella. The idea was also panned by the city’s Environmental Commission, which in April recommended removing it.

Gregory Montes, project team lead for the Vision Plan, has an unnaturally calm speaking voice. But the longtime Austin Parks Department employee sounds exasperated when asked about the idea that the Vision Plan seeks to create an opaque nonprofit with close ties to C3 (an Austin concert promotion company that produces ACL) and Live Nation. He said planners introduced the idea of an umbrella nonprofit to help city officials manage a handful of smaller nonprofits whose work sometimes overlaps in the park. “From the perspective of the parks department, it would be great to have one overarching nonprofit to deal with,” Montes said. “That was our intent. It would also help us raise money for the park.” Montes believes much of the opposition to the plan is driven by misplaced nostalgia. “People who have been here in Austin a long time don’t want to see it change,” he added. 

And yet concerns about the vision plan aren’t coming only from critics on the outside of the plan looking in. Sarah Faust—an environmental attorney who served as vice chair of Austin’s Parks and Recreation Board from 2020 to 2023—participated in a series of discussions analyzing survey questions that were supposed to help board members draft priorities for the plan. Looking back, she said, the current proposal doesn’t reflect the process she participated in. Even when public feedback was heavily against putting an amphitheater on the Great Lawn, for example, with only 17 percent of respondents supporting the idea, the building ended up there anyway without clear explanation. At one point, Faust says, she was surprised to discover that consultants had been holding meetings with ACL and other commercial interests without board members’ knowledge. While there seemed to be widespread public consensus about keeping the park’s organic character intact, and there are elements of the plan she likes, such as the emphasis on pedestrian connectivity, Faust argues that the final plan seems geared toward facilitating large events that will make money. “Once you build something on a green space, you’re never going to get that space back,” she said. “Are we really expected to believe they’re building an entire amphitheater overlooking downtown for occasional performances of Shakespeare in the Park?”

Diving deeply into the Vision Plan is a lot like swimming to the bottom of Barton Springs on a hot summer’s day. The water’s dark blue-green hues look enticing from above, but in the pool’s murkiest depths the pressure increases, the colors dim, the water feels even colder, and disorientation begins to set in. When talking to advocates on both sides of the debate, it can be equally difficult to discern which way is up, which way is down, who’s lying, who’s telling the truth, and whether parking garages are part of a multimillion-dollar scheme to line the pockets of the city’s donor class or merely a convenient way to reduce impervious cover.

As in most political moments when intense emotions rise to the surface, a deeper wound underlies this debate. For longtime Austinites, that wound includes its fair share of heartbreaking nostalgia. But in a city where so many residents have experienced a sharp decline in their quality of life in recent years, a place that is widely viewed as prioritizing wealth over the needs of the wider community, the wound is more closely tied to a deepening distrust of local leaders. 

The intensity of this debate feels very specific to Austin. One hundred and sixty miles to the southeast, in Houston’s Hermann Park, there are no trust issues simmering beneath the surface. In 1995, the park began implementing its own $121 million master plan. In less than two decades, Hermann Park was transformed from an ugly patch of parched earth to a beautiful and bustling urban refuge. Unlike at Zilker, the park’s stewards have a strict policy that doesn’t allow large festivals to take over what they view as a critical public space. Performances ranging from Macbeth to local hip-hop acts are strictly confined to Miller Outdoor Theatre. Across the street—at the entrance to McGovern Centennial Gardens, an eight-acre maze of walking trails, fruit trees, and native grasses—a sign even bans commercial photographers from entering. Doreen Stoller, president and CEO of the Hermann Park Conservancy, said one of her organization’s primary goals is keeping commercial interests outside the park’s boundaries, giving Houstonians—especially those recovering from illness at the nearby Texas Medical Center—a proper place to recharge. “When someone is looking at koi in a pond, they don’t also want to be navigating around a bunch of commercial photography equipment,” Stoller said. 

Asked whether park leaders would ever monetize the 445-acre space temporarily, allowing a festival like ACL to rent out portions of the outdoor space, Stoller politely demurred. To deprive the public of the space for weeks at a time, she explained, is not something Houston would consider. “It’s not just about people,” she explained. “We’re also sensitive to migratory birds and places where they can rest while they’re traveling. Holding music festivals in one of the city’s prime natural areas wouldn’t help the park serve the community or nature in its highest and best way.”