The future of Zilker Park is one step closer to being decided after city leaders released their suggestions on new infrastructure plans, and one of those major changes would mean a new parking garage right next to where people and pups picnic and play.
The portion of Zilker Park that would be affected is the former Butler Landfill site, a 25-acre stretch of rock and dirt running along either side of, and under, the south end of the MoPac Boulevard bridge. Underneath is household waste dumped there from 1948 through 1967.
The Butler Landfill is currently overflow parking for when the spaces encircling the Great Lawn — a 50-acre stretch of grass and oak trees overlooking the city's skyline — fill up with cars. The lack of greenery at the Butler Landfill, a result of the household waste stored beneath, makes for quite an eyesore compared with the main park area just steps away that is home to the Austin City Limits Music Festival each year.
But to bring a bit of life back to the Butler Landfill, the Zilker Park Vision Plan, in addition to building a two- or three-level parking garage at the Butler Landfill, also proposes turning part of the acreage into a woodland area.
"While the existing condition of parking on the landfill is less than ideal, this is a highly utilized area of the park with nearby facilities in need of parking access," Gregory Montes, project manager for the Butler Landfill, said in a statement. He said a woodland area is needed to help prevent the old trash from being further uncovered or mixing with Lady Bird Lake.
Several investigations over the decades confirmed that the buried waste was exposed in multiple areas throughout the landfill, and that the lower portion of material within the landfill was saturated by the waters of Lady Bird Lake, according to a 2021 site analysis. It's unclear if the lake's water is still mixing with the trash.
The city has completed small projects over the years to keep the trash covered.
The analysis of the landfill published last year also confirmed the presence or likely presence of hazardous substances, including arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, magnesium, lead, iron and manganese. Some of those elements, like arsenic, can cause lung and skin cancers from chronic exposure, while breathing in or bathing in cadmium-contaminated waters can cause lung damage over time.
"The plan recommends an ecological uplift restoration of the landfill area," Montes said. "This would be in the form of an upland woodland and meadow/savanna restoration. Due to the close location to the lake, it’s recommended that the waste material be extracted or additional soils be added to the top of the existing cap. The result would be acres of improved ecological health while creating passive recreational opportunities for visitors."
How much could it cost, and who would pay for it?
The parking garage and woodland restoration combo at the Butler Landfill would cost at least $1 million, according to city leaders.
It's unclear how the project would be funded, but the draft plan lists the city's General Fund, general bonds, Parkland Dedication Funds and other grants and partnerships as possible options.
"How the proposed improvements to the Butler Landfill area are funded would be dictated by the availability of these funds, opportunities and the prioritization of the project," city leaders in charge of the project said in a statement.
How many vehicles could the garage fit and would parking be free?
The proposed parking garage will be two or three levels, and, if built, it could hold hundreds of vehicles.
The city is proposing three separate parking garages spread across the more than 350 acres of Zilker Park, which combined could accommodate about 2,000 vehicles.
The draft plan recommends having visitors pay to park in the garage, Montes said. However, what the parking charges might be are still undecided.
"The city is thriving and growing and so is the number of people visiting the park," Montes said. "As visitation numbers continue to grow, parking was identified as a high-ranking challenge.
"As a result, the high number of visitors and lack of adequate parking is causing environmental damage in several areas of the park," he said. "Recommendations call for more multimodal transportation options and improved internal circulation to remedy this."
Is the project definitely happening?
The proposed changes to the Butler Landfill are not final, but they are being seriously considered.
Residents are now able to leave support, advice or concerns on the entire Zilker Park Vision Plan online at https://publicinput.com/zilkerdraft-full.
Dozens of Austin-area residents have already taken to the portal to give their own opinions on the project.
One person wrote: "I worry that the inclusion of multiple parking garages still reflects a car-centric approach to planning what should be an urban gem. We should do everything possible to reduce vehicular access to the park and instead encourage access by public transit, bike, rideshare and foot."
Another said: "The garage would put all the cars in one place leaving more green space. It would be great if everyone could magically ride or walk or take the bus, but that is not the reality (unfortunately). A garage seems like a good solution here."
Those who want to attend a community meeting about the potential changes to Zilker Park in-person can do so at an open house 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dec. 10 at McBeth Recreation Center in Zilker Park.
There will also be a virtual meeting at 6 p.m. Dec. 7, and folks can register for it at https://us06web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZwvfuiuqD4pEt3ULwxGepYjLusAgV80sU9q.
The Zilker Park Vision Plan draft will then be sent to the Parks and Recreation Board and several other commissions for review and recommendations. The final approval would have to come from the Austin City Council, according to Montes.
The approval process should start in early 2023.
How soon could it be built?
The timeline for the possible construction of the garage is still unknown, Montes said.
The plan is long-term, so it could be years of further planning and fundraising until an actual structure goes up. But the parking garage is one of the Zilker Park Vision Plan's high-priority projects, Montes said.
"The planning team will continue to evaluate the top priorities for the city and the community, then package several projects that can be funded," he said.
This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Gravel lot at Zilker Park could be replaced with a parking garage