Monday, July 22, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

One year later: The new life of the old Onion Creek flood plain

Since 1999, the city of Austin has been working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to buy homeowners out of the Onion Creek flood zone. Last year, when the Watershed Protection Department completed the buyout program, 813 houses had been removed out of harm’s way.

Although 10 homeowners refused the buyout offer, Leah Gibson with the Watershed Protection Department told the Environmental Commission at its July 17 meeting that the area is now transformed into 190 acres of parkland and 100 acres of recreation area, including 31 pavilions and miles of street that has either been removed or converted into trails.

Called the Onion Creek Metropolitan Park at Yarrabee Bend, the park officially opened with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on June 22 and the maintenance of the land will now be under the Parks and Recreation Department’s jurisdiction.

There are, however, some unique challenges that come along with managing land that was once residential. “As people move away, the fruit trees and landscaping trees are all left behind,” said Gibson. Not all of those trees, she explained, are suitable for a Texas climate, and in the wild, sometimes “these trees decide they’re going to give up.” When they do, that requires the parks department to have a robust tree management system in place to remove those that become roadblocks. As for other common residential vegetation like bamboo and ligustrum, “that stuff kind of gets let loose.”

Beyond the challenges associated with integrating non-native plants into a natural Central Texas habitat, Gibson said that it can be difficult for people to leave their homes. “To some people, they’re always going to have that tie with that space,” which often prompts initiatives like community gardens. Unfortunately, after decades of existence underneath concrete foundations, the soils are not always ready to support life, which can cause frustrations, said Gibson.

However, both the parks department and the Watershed Protection Department feel that it is important to integrate the wishes of the surrounding residents and former homeowners into the planned maintenance and activation of the park. To better understand what the surrounding community wants from the new park space, Gibson says that her team has worked to receive community feedback on park management.

The four main areas of concern were security after dark, management of the homeless population, illegal dumping and fallen trees.

To help provide solutions to these issues as well as provide more amenities and programs in the park, the city is reaching out to form private partnerships with organizations like Go Austin/Vamos Austin (GAVA), the Sustainable Food Center, the Onion Creek Park Neighborhood Association and the Austin Parks Foundation. Gibson said that the city is also working with the Austin Police Department to establish park curfews and coordinating with Austin Resource Recovery for regular debris sweeps of the area.

Although progress to create a park that is safe, easily accessible and popular with the neighborhood is well underway, Gibson told commissioners, “We know that this is an ongoing conversation.”

Commissioners Andrew Creel, Mary Ann Neely, Brian Smith and Kevin Ramberg were absent.

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Environmental Commission: An advisory board to members of the Austin City Council. Its purview includes "all projects and programs which affect the quality of life for the citizens of Austin." In many cases, this includes development projects.

Onion Creek floodplain: The Onion Creek floodplain includes portions of southeast Austin and Travis County. Homeowners in the area suffered a major catastrophe in late October, 2013 when the region suffered massive flooding. Both the City of Austin and Travis County are engaged in efforts to buyout homeowners.

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