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Collaborative process yields innovative design for Williamson Creek greenway

Monday, April 26, 2021 by Sumaiya Malik, Reporting Texas

The Environmental Commission has recommended conditional support of the Central Williamson Creek Greenway Vision Plan provided that the project reaches out to additional neighborhood associations and working groups and that the trails and improvements avoid areas marked as critical environmental features. 

The coalition that developed the vision plan presented it to Environmental commissioners at their regular meeting on April 7. The plan, which includes 58 acres of parkland and 16 acres of floodplain buyout properties, represents a yearlong process of formal and creative efforts to engage the community.

Map courtesy of the Central Williamson Creek Vision Plan.

Residents around the greenway have long discussed ways to preserve and protect the corridor and make it more connected and accessible. Community members have organized creek cleanups and invasive species removal and hosted potlucks and nature walks. They have established wildflower meadows to improve the health of the creek and support birds and other wildlife, said Steve Prather, a member of the Southwood Neighborhood Community working group.

“This greenway is the heartbeat for the community and affects their quality of life,” Chair Linda Guerrero told the Austin Monitor

In 2017, the Austin nonprofit Community Powered Workshop began working with the Southwood and Heartwood neighborhoods to bring local voices to the table in the design process. The idea was to create a connected recreational greenway for a park-deficient community in South Austin featuring community gardens, mountain bike trails, on-street bike lanes, fitness programming, and nature paths.  

Central Williamson Creek Community Working Group, the Parks and Recreation Department, Watershed Protection, and the landscape architecture firm Asakura Robinson are among the organizations that joined Community Powered Workshop to work on the plan for the three-mile stretch between Manchaca Road and South Congress. 

A 2019 Healthy Park Study published by the St. David’s Foundation and the Trust for Public Land rated the parklands of Central Williamson Creek as highly deficient and unstable. In 2020, the foundation awarded a grant to the Nature Conservancy to create a vision plan for the greenway. 

Asakura Robinson Landscape Architects helped form a vision planning process with community members and public land managers. Community members and city staffers were placed on equal footing to balance community priorities. 

The result was a community-led process with support from the city of Austin and local nonprofits. The plan is valued at just about $2 million.

Environmental commissioners and community members had some concerns about public safety, flood water and damage to the creek bed.

Commissioner Pamela Thompson raised concerns about the possible presence of blue-green algae, E. coli and the exposure of people camping in the park. There would be no way of contacting homeless individuals to inform them of a water emergency, she pointed out. 

“So, if we are going to say it’s OK for people to camp there, are you willing to take the responsibility?” she said. 

Thompson wasn’t sure if people camping in a Central Williamson Creek camping ground would have access to information about hazardous water quality.

“People too close to the park in flooding could create a bad emergency,” she said. 

The plan recommended signage to alert the public in areas where the mountain biking trail and hiking trails pass near sensitive areas subject to high-water flooding. 

Commissioner Richard Brimer agreed with Thompson about the safety of people around the creek and the potential for flash floods during storm events. “These improvements could be washed away with the next heavy rainstorm,” he said. 

“All trails are set with a 50-foot buffer away from critical environmental features along the greenway,” said Claire Eddleman-Heath of Asakura Robinson. 

There are two circumstances where the plan proposes going closer than 50 feet for the nature trail and for educational purposes, Eddleman-Heath said. 

Additionally, parts of the mountain bike trail pass through the dry creek bed. 

“This can degrade the creek – and mountain bikers love to go off trail,” said Michael Folsom with the Austin Heritage Tree Foundation. He requested delaying approval of the plan and assigning it to the Environmental Commission’s tree group for further discussion about possible damage to the creek. 

“While we support the outcomes of the vision-planning process and we support the ideas proposed, I do want to make it clear that additional engagement will be required in order to move forward with implementing many of the projects that are proposed,” said Leah Gibson with the Watershed Protection Department.

The commissioners recognized the three tiers of the project and suggested three conditions for the project to move forward: signage on the greenway, 50-foot buffers to prevent encroachment on the flood easement and inclusion of neighbors who were left out.  

Guerrero recommended setting up a workshop or session for people who feel they were left out of the planning process.

Environmental Commissioners approved the motion unanimously in a vote of 7-0, with Commissioner Katie Coyne recused. 

This article has been changed since publication to correct a number of misspellings and to clarify that Austin Parks Foundation has not yet funded the project. 

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