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Did you know part of Zilker Park sits on a landfill? See 3 ways Austin could change it

Heather Osbourne
Austin American-Statesman
The former Butler Landfill is now overflow parking lot at Zilker Park. The 25-acre area that runs under the MoPac Boulevard bridge hides household waste dumped there from 1948 through 1967.

When many think of Zilker Park they picture the Great Lawn, a nearly 50-acre stretch of grass overlooking the city's skyline where music lovers come together each fall for the Austin City Limits Music Festival, and where the sky is decorated each spring during the Zilker Kite Festival

Unless someone is looking for a place to park, it's easy to turn your back on the 25 acres of rock and dirt running under the MoPac Boulevard bridge that hides household waste dumped there from 1948 through 1967.

The former Butler Landfill is now overflow parking at Zilker and a place where nomads detour their converted buses and vans for a few days or weeks at a time.

"I seriously doubt that many new residents who have relocated to Austin are aware that (lot) was actually a city landfill," said Gregory Montes, the project manager for the Zilker Metropolitan Park Vision Plan. "For most people, I think it's unknown because it's hidden. You don't see any remnants of that landfill."

Landfill under Zilker Park

The Butler Landfill, the site of an old quarry for the Butler Brick Factory in the early 1900s before becoming a city dump, is holding about 100,000 cubic yards of household waste, according to a 1984 study from Underground Resource Management Inc. It reaches a maximum depth of 30 feet, according to a site analysis done by the city. 

An analysis of the landfill published last year found 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. 

Austin city leaders are planning to invest hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of taxpayer dollars to reclaim that coveted piece of land under three proposed concepts called Stitch, Edges and Regenerate. The plans aren't perfect, Montes said, but they just might bring a little life and health back to that piece of earth. 

An RV sits parked atop the former Butler Landfill at Zilker Park. The Butler Landfill, the site of an old quarry for the Butler Brick Factory in the early 1900s before becoming a city dump, holds about 100,000 cubic yards of household waste.

Stitch concept: Prairie restoration

A forgotten wasteland like the Butler Landfill can cause many challenges for those wanting to restore the soil for plant life. 

Scientists for years have warned communities to reduce their waste and avoid creating new landfills, with a major push toward more recycling and composting. The difficulty of growing greenery atop landfills once they are full and capped is just a small consequence compared with the environmental damage they cause around them. 

Structures built over landfills can be at risk of a gradual or sudden sinking of the ground, or methane gas exposure from the decomposition of waste. As a result, structures that don't house people, like solar panel farms, are popular uses for them today. 

While solar panels aren't on the short list of plans for the Butler Landfill, the Stitch concept would turn it into a restored prairie with some trees for shade along the edges of the property.

It would place a paved parking lot to the right of the MoPac bike and pedestrian bridge that runs underneath the roadway, according to published Stitch plans.

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"Right now, we do have a parking lot under MoPac," Montes said. "MoPac is actually built over a portion of the landfill as well. That would actually mean that the landfill would remain there, but we would add additional soils so we can introduce a restoration of the prairie and woodland area."

In each of the three concepts, the Butler Landfill is one among several large projects that would be renovated under the Zilker Metropolitan Park Vision Plan. 

The city is paying a company called Design Workshop $600,000 for the planning process of the Vision Plan. The fee is divided among a team of 15 consultants, according to Design Workshop. 

Montes said Design Workshop has not yet released cost estimates for the actual construction of each of the three concepts. But he did say renovations would likely rely heavily on general bonds, which allow local governments to raise money for projects that do not necessarily bring money back to the city directly.

Governments can take out bonds despite the project not making revenue because they can instead be backed by taxes, or the potential to increase taxes, to pay back the money. For local governments, property taxes are a common way to pay back bonds. 

Local nonprofits will also be asked to help fund the project and help with the park's maintenance, according to Montes. He added that a conservancy, a body focused on the preservation of a natural space, might also be established for Zilker Park. 

Edges concept: Garage and theater

The second proposal, the most ambitious of the three for the Butler Landfill, is sparking a debate among city leaders and a handful of environmental activists and residents who disagree over the need for a large-scale parking project at the site. 

Unlike the parking lot idea under Stitch, Edges would propose a new parking garage placed right atop the landfill, adjacent to MoPac Boulevard. The parking garage would likely be supported the same way builders constructed the bridge, thus avoiding a significant risk of support failures, according to the city. 

It would also be the new home of a relocated Zilker Hillside Theater, which has hosted musicians and dancers right across the parking lot from Barton Springs Pool since the 1950s.

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Gail Rothe and Bruce Wiland, members of the Zilker Park Neighborhood Association, said they oppose this idea because they think the city should focus on researching the health threats of the site before pitching concepts of construction on top of it. 

"It seems unconscionable to take lakefront or riverfront green space and hardscape it, and that's what they plan to do," Rothe said.

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 the 2021 site analysis. The city has completed small projects over the years to keep the trash covered. 

Rothe and Wiland agreed that more soil should be placed on top of the Butler Landfill to protect residents from the waste and to give the land a chance to regenerate.

"There is a concern that if they don't get a vegetative cover on it and keep traffic off of it that it will deteriorate," Wiland said, adding that he was opposed to relocating the theater to that area simply because "people will be trying to watch plays or musicals with a freeway running right beside it."

Apart from the Butler Landfill plans, the Edges concept for Zilker Park proposes a tunnel for pedestrians under Barton Springs Road and at least one other bridge connection across Barton Creek.

Jonathan Ogren, founder of Siglo Group, which is helping with the environmental aspect of the Zilker Metropolitan Park Vision Plan, stressed that these ideas were formed by Design Workshop based on community input. 

Because the Zilker Metropolitan Vision Plan is a long-term project, the city has time to rethink certain concepts as more environmental testing is done and community members give more feedback, Ogren explained.

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"The goal is to get public input on different ideas," he said. "The Vision Plan should be about what we have consensus about from a community basis. I would love if we had an all-star transit system throughout Austin so we need less parking at Zilker." 

But Ogren conceded that "the reality of that happening tomorrow, or in the next five years is relatively low." Instead, he asks, "What can we do to accommodate Zilker users today, tomorrow, 50 or 100 years from now?" 

Regenerate: More transit, shuttle route

The Regenerate concept will not focus as much on the Butler Landfill as Edges.

Instead, Regenerate proposes an off-site shuttle route connecting the park to downtown, in addition to reducing Barton Creek Road down to one lane in each direction to create on-street parking. 

Regenerate, just like Stitch, would turn the Butler Landfill into a prairie and woodland area instead of a parking lot or parking garage. In this plan, the city would just repave the lot already created under MoPac for parking and add walking trails throughout the prairie.

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Regenerate also proposes a boardwalk on that part of Lady Bird Lake, formal access points into Barton Creek for areas outside of the pool, a welcome center, new playgrounds and a separated bike trail from the Butler Hike and Bike Trail along Lady Bird Lake. 

Residents can weigh in

Residents still have a say as to what the Butler Landfill will become, with the next community meeting scheduled for this fall.

It's during that meeting, and by contacting your city council members, that residents can make their preferences on the projects known.

The city has worked for the past year to make residents aware of the project and has already held four community meetings before the final meeting this fall. 

Visitors who come to Zilker from outside Austin can also provide input, with the entire community engagement plan published online at austintexas.gov/zilkervision.

Once that final meeting commences, the final draft of the Vision Plan will be announced. 

In early 2023, the plan will then be reviewed and committees will join together to discuss it before the Austin City Council votes on the final plan later that year.