In those bygone, downright innocent days of summer 2019, the City of Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department released a vision plan for upgrades to the city’s largest piece of parkland, the approximately 3,695-acre Walter E. Long Metropolitan Park located in far East Austin just west of State Highway 130. The plan for improving the park, produced by engineering and design consultancy Halff Associates, could best be described as ambitious — but back then, we settled on “completely bonkers.”
The approximately $800 million vision for the park included a laundry list of various nice-to-haves such as a Ferris wheel, observation tower, planetarium, and “floating water sports zone” on the site’s 1,165-acre lake, which besides its current popularity with sport fishers has been used since the 1960s as a cooling reservoir for the adjacent Decker Creek Power Station. Although City Council adopted the vision plan back in 2020 and its broad strokes should serve as a guiding document for upgrades to the park over the decades to come, three years later it appears we’re starting a bit smaller.
Earlier this week, PARD announced it has started the design phase on a set of more modest improvements to the infrastructure at Walter E. Long, which “will help sustain park operations until implementation of vision plan elements can begin in the future” — they’re probably talking about stuff like the Ferris wheel, right?
The anticipated scope of this first phase, which is focused on the area south of the lake near the park entrance at Decker Creek Road, includes rehabilitating the currently unusable public restroom facilities, improving connectivity through the site with road improvements and additional trails, the addition of a picnic area, and possibly a new playground at the site. These are miles away from the more ridiculously expensive ideas pitched in the vision plan, but they’re also already funded by the city’s 2018 parks bond proposition — we’d obviously rather see these smaller-scale upgrades built now to get more people into the park, which we’ve frequently described as one of the city’s most underused opportunities for outdoor recreation.
Even if we’re not expecting the Disneyland-style stuff to take shape anytime soon, there’s a compelling argument for getting this park fixed up. A recurring topic of discussion for District 1 Council Member and lifelong eastsider Natasha Harper-Madison is that Austin’s ongoing growth combined with its housing affordability struggles will eventually blur the boundaries of downtown across I-35, and someday in the future when people refer to “East Austin” they’ll increasingly be talking about something like Colony Park rather than the area directly east of the highway.
That puts Walter E. Long closer to the heart of what could eventually become East Austin’s new demographic center, meaning its improvement as an amenity for nearby residents starts to become an issue of equity — as well-heeled central homeowners focus their increasingly conspiratorial outrage on the Zilker Vision Plan, a piece of city parkland 10 miles to the east that’s more than 13 times bigger than Zilker is largely ignored. With PARD preparing to announce a construction schedule for this first wave of improvements at Walter E. Long later this year, we’re hoping that changes soon.