Keep Austin Green
How the city is investing in its outdoor spaces for future generations
By Kahron Spearman
Photographs by Travis Hallmark
In a broad survey completed last year for a coalition that included the Trust for Public Land, the Urban Land Institute and the National Recreation and Park Association, the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy reported that city parks and green spaces are necessary for “maintaining physical and mental health and helping communities navigate toward recovery.”
“The pandemic has proven that parks are essential infrastructure,” said Adrian Benepe, former senior vice president and director of national programs for the Trust for Public Land, in the October 2020 article. “It’s a great paradox that parks have never been more used or appreciated than now. Everything else was shut down, and parks were the last refuge.”
This notion rings true in Austin, where outdoor spaces remain a significant selling point for the city’s marketing efforts, central to commercial interests and a haven for all residents, new and old.
“The city of Austin is growing, and more diverse sets of people are coming,” says Pease Park Conservancy CEO Heath Riddles-Sanchez. “COVID has taught us, with all these people coming from different places, urban green space has shown to be among the most democratic you could imagine. It is a great equalizer.
“We saw a 500% increase in traffic during COVID; it was one of the last places that anyone could come. [Urban green spaces] helped people make it through alive, and it’s reflective of the importance of park space in creating, forming, building community.” As our city returns to some of its pre-COVID routines, we explored three renovated spaces, ready or nearly ready, for Austinites and visitors to seek out this summer.
Auditorium Shores at Town Lake Metropolitan Park, 201 Lee Barton Dr.
“For a long time in my life, [Butler] was the place I went to see friends,” says Michael Fojtasek, the award-winning chef-owner of Olamaie and a longtime patron of the historic pitch-and-putt. “I knew I could go down and play and meet a friend unscheduled.”
The Butler Pitch and Putt is the epitome of what Fojtasek describes as “anti-golf”: more reckless pleasure, less normalized pretentiousness. A then-nine-hole course was finished in 1950 by brothers Douglas and Winston Kinser, who managed the golf course together until Douglas’ clubhouse murder in 1951 at the hands of infamous Lyndon Johnson associate Malcolm Wallace.
“Golf has such a strong connection to a world that is elite and exclusive,” says Fojtasek. “The Pitch and Putt has always represented anti-golf to me. I play with steelworkers, painters and people from different walks of life. It’s not your typical country club.”
British PGA golfer and golf operations manager Nick Pateman echoed the sentiment to the Austin American-Statesman when the course reopened in April: “People should expect it to be laidback overall. It’s certainly not a country club. It’s open doors to all.”
With the course updates overseen by Pecan Grove Golf Partners and New Waterloo, the pitch-and-putt hopes to further invigorate Austin’s collective desire to come out from under the pandemic cloud and with even more inclusiveness. The group spent $1 million on park improvements, including an added 10th practice hole known as Sweet P.
Jack Sanders, Austin’s sandlot sports king and self-described “dirty minimalist,” also assisted in portions of the restoration through his architecture design firm, Design Build Adventure. He designed the new centerpiece scoreboard and sees Butler as “sandlot golf,” “stripped down” to the critical essence. As with many of his other projects, his enduring interests are steeped in maintaining vestiges of Austin’s history.
“You could just see the care and love of the original owners’ vision,” he says. “In a city that’s changing so much, it just seemed like an opportunity to do very little.”
1100 Kingsbury St.
Known as the “welcoming front door to Pease Park,” Kingsbury Commons will reopen in full to the public in August, following the completion of a $15 million renovation intended to include all of Austin’s prospective parkgoers. As the most visible space in the Pease Park Conservancy’s vision plan for the 84-acre property, the modern updates are meant to increase engagement, including a small amphitheater, lush greenery, state-of-the-art water features and a new regulation basketball court.
The augmentations come, in part, through a nearly $10 million buy-in from the Moody Foundation. The charming Tudor Cottage, formerly a public restroom, is being repurposed as an event space. An astonishing 40-foot-tall, multi-ton, ADA-compliant treescape structure, which will be reminiscent of a firefly jar at twilight, stands as the crown jewel of Kingsbury Commons.
Considering previous cases of failures in upkeep, the conservancy will maintain control over the space and is currently negotiating with the City of Austin to take over the entire park in phases.
“We put together a vision plan for 84 acres, contemplating a grand notion of elevating the park into its highest potential,” says Riddles-Sanchez. “What would it look like if we created a world-class, sort of Central Park for Austin, in this, the first and oldest public park?”
It’s not only a monumental task, but a notion that could be perceived as somewhat problematic, which Riddles-Sanchez, to his credit, fully understands. The very history of Central Park and the destruction of Seneca Village, a thriving Black neighborhood, still rings in the present. Even the reality that the restoration sits atop a section of Woodlawn, the former 365-acre plantation of noted enslaver Governor Elisha M. Pease, is not lost on the conservancy. They have plans to recognize those who were enslaved.
“It was really about making a space that was safe and welcoming and acceptable to all people,” Riddles-Sanchez says of being part of a solution. “We acknowledge that perhaps not everyone has felt that welcome; it’s contiguous with one of the whitest, wealthiest communities in the state. And consequently, how do we correct that?”
500 E. 12th St.
Like Pease Park, Waterloo Park is also forced to reckon with a preceding history, one of displacement. The Waterloo Greenway Conservancy has also chosen documentation and remembrance.
“Throughout Waterloo Park, we’ll have signage with information about the residents and business owners of color that have historically called the Waterloo Park, Waller Creek and Red River areas their home, as well as information about the Indigenous people who lived on this land,” explains Kathy Miller, interim CEO of the conservancy. “We hope that by amplifying these stories within Waterloo Park, visitors will be able to learn more about the people and cultures that have shaped its history and continue to influence the culture of this space.”
In partnership with the City of Austin, the conservancy announced in late June that Waterloo Park will open on August 14. The opening will signify fulfillment of the first phase of Waterloo Greenway’s 35-acre connected urban park system, producing an innovative mobility corridor and a reactivated Waller Creek.
The location will include 1.5 miles of hike-and-bike trail and a children’s play area. A gorgeous 11-acre urban green space, filled with plants indigenous to the Hill Country, will feature portions designed as cultural and educational “outdoor classrooms.” But the pièce de résistance is the 5,000-seat open theater, with its ivory-white pillars, crosshatched beams and glass fixtures. Restoring the park’s remarkable musical legacy and thanks to a partnership with promoter C3 Presents, the theater will create a unique performing arts operating area for both public and private events.
Melissa Ayala, director of community engagement for the conservancy, notes that the group elected to “build decks to protect the Texas oak rooting systems,” as most of the park’s new infrastructure caters directly to the natural topography versus simply clearing out the land.
“The conservancy decided against usual metal or plastic seating, opting for natural materials, including various sitting stones and wood play areas,” explains Ayala. “One of the things we’ve been trying to do [in partnership with the City of Austin parks department] is continuing movement to natural-based play. In our research, we found studies showing that kids are staying out longer on more-natural material.”
A serpentine path will connect the ground to the upper area that eventually conjoins to the amphitheater roof, providing scenic views. More Texas native plants, flowers and other flora will fill the open coils in the upward winding. Waterloo Greenway is also co-sponsoring a soon-commencing mural project with the City of Austin.
“The reopening of Waterloo Park represents a bridge between Austin’s past, present and future,” according to Miller. “We’re honoring the culture of the area while building a place that is a vital part of what Austin will become.”