Austin’s Pease Park Is Getting a Makeover This Summer: Hear From the Founder of the Group Behind It
Pease Park Conservancy Founder Richard Craig first set out to plant a few trees in a park he treasures, but his dedication to Pease Park has nurtured a much bigger initiative that breaks ground later this year.
Pease Park has always been a part of native Austinite Craig’s life. As a young child, he went to birthday parties in the park. When he was in high school at Austin High (back when it was on 12th street), he remembers that the boys would head over to Pease Park to fight over girls. As an adult, Craig drove by the park on his way downtown to work as an attorney at the state comptroller’s office, and he’d regularly jog the Shoal Creek Hike and Bike Trail that runs through it.
Over this lifetime, he saw first-hand how the park deteriorated over time.
“I would watch the park over that lifetime. And, you know, just see the deterioration of it as the city had less and less funds to take care of its whole park system, but that was especially true for some of the inner-city parks,” Craig says. “What limited funding the parks department had, it went to acquire parks on the extremities of the city, buying land up while it was reasonably priced. So maintenance began to really fall off in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s.”
Right about the time Craig was ready for retirement, he read an article Pam LeBlanc wrote for The Austin American Statesman about a study the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center had done in 2007 on Pease Park: The study concluded that if something wasn’t done soon, the park’s ecosystem would be completely and permanently destroyed.
It was almost a no-brainer then that Craig turned his attention — and newly free time — to the park.
“I reached out to the Austin Parks Foundation and contacted Charlie McCabe, who was executive director at the time, and said, ‘What can we do about this?’ We initially wanted just to plant some trees. That was the most crying need in the park,” Craig says. “A park in Texas without any trees is pretty much unusable.”
That first year, 2008, Trees for Pease got its start with two planting events, one in February and one in November. The events were rousing successes, in part because of Craig’s friendship with Les Carnes, one of the organizers of Eeyore’s Birthday that takes place in Pease Park every year. The Eeyore’s crew came out with nearly two hundred of their own volunteers to help.
Things grew organically from there.
“We got into it bit by bit. We looked around the park, and we noticed that so many other things needed to be done just besides the tree canopy, and you're in for a penny, in for a pound,” Craig explains. “You think, ‘Well, we need to fix this over there. We need to fix that over in that direction.’ You know, pretty soon your head is twirling, and we decided we better approach the park a little more comprehensively.”
That’s when things got organized. An initial group of friends and neighbors formed a board of directors, and the group partnered with Austin Parks Foundation, which served as its umbrella organization for a few years until it could form its own nonprofit. The name was also changed from Trees for Pease to Pease Park Conservancy to better reflect the group’s broader mission.
Pease Park Conservancy became one of a growing number of public-private partnerships (P3s) to spring up around Austin to protect and enhance Austin’s natural resources. Austin Parks Foundation is one, and The Trail Foundation is another that — as Craig tells it — was created after former Austin Mayor Will Wynn advised a complaining Austinite that city funds would realistically never be enough to keep the Butler Hike and Bike Trail up to many Austinites’ standards.
“This would happen under liberal councils and under conservative councils,” Craig says. “The parks department would be cut, and everybody talks a green game, but when it came to preparing the city budget, parks were always at the back of the bus along with libraries … It’s really necessitated these P3s filling the gap. If we’re going to be the city we want to be, private philanthropy had to come forward and save these parks.”
In 2013, Pease Park Conservancy started putting together a master plan for improvement with input from the community and the help of professional design firm Wallace Roberts and Todd (WRT), out of Philadelphia. Craig says one of the main guiding principles of the master plan is “less is more.” The Conservancy has no desire to change the rawness of the park.
“We had three public meetings, and they were well attended. We got a lot of ideas from the public. They wanted the park to be better cared for. They wanted better amenities. They wanted better restroom facilities. They wanted, you know, some improvements here and there — a better trail. But they liked the park the way it was. Pease Park is a treasure in the center of Austin. To have a natural space like this — it's like country in the city — is so rare,” Craig says.
The planning process was completed in Summer 2014, and then in October 2014 Austin City Council unanimously approved the project. At that point, it was time to start raising the millions of dollars it would take to actually move the plan from paper to park.
Craig says this is where the Conservancy really got lucky. He was acquainted with Ross Moody of the Moody Foundation, who lives in Old Enfield near Pease Park and had given smaller grants to the group in the past. Moody watched Craig and his group for a while as they took on smaller projects and judged their capacity to handle bigger things.
“He said to me one time, ‘I like you all. You’re scrappy. You do a lot with a little.’ … Our organization was not a big society thing where people get on the board just to have their picture in the paper or something and didn’t do any work,” Craig says. “All our board members were out there on volunteer days, sweating, and moving mulch around, and watering trees, so he really liked that model.”
Pease Park Conservancy applied for a grant from the Moody Foundation in the summer of 2016, and in the Fall of 2017 it received $9.7 million — enough for an ambitious first-phase implementation of the master plan, focused on Kingsbury Commons.
“It really took us from being the garage band that we were initially, just us neighbors and friends who had never been involved in nonprofits before, to now a professional organization — a well-staffed and well-oiled professional organization with the capacity and the know-how of experienced people who've been in the nonprofit world all their careers to really get this project off the drawing board and done.”
Fast forward to 2019, and that project is about to break ground. Within a year (fingers crossed — you know how construction can be!) the south 13 acres of the park, known as Kingsbury Commons, will be restored and enhanced according to plans by Austin designer Christy Ten Eyck and her team at Ten Eyck Landscape Architects, Inc..
The old, English Tudor-style restroom on the hill — an iconic symbol of the park — will be repurposed into a community gathering space with terraces to the north. There will be new children’s playscapes that emphasize nature play. There will be a water feature, and new restrooms. And most unique of all, there will be a new tree house: an orb-like structure with ramps to take people up into the trees.
“We kind of let the designer just go crazy with it. You know, free form, what they could think of … they had the pen in their hand and we weren't looking over the shoulder, and they really came up with something very creative and innovative,” Craig says.
Parts of the southern end of the park will be fenced off during construction, but the Shoal Creek Hike and Bike Trail, the greenbelt, and the northern end of the park will remain open.
It’d be difficult to talk to Craig and not come away with a profound appreciation for Pease Park and its rich history. He explains how former Governor Pease and his wife — “Austin royalty,” Craig calls them — donated the south end of the park to the City of Austin in 1875, because they wanted Austin to rival cosmopolitan centers such as Boston and New York. Then how Janet Fish paid for the Shoal Creek Hike and Bike Trail in the early 1960’s, as legend has it, with the $5,000 her husband had given her to buy a new station wagon.
“She would disappear off into the ragweed and throw her hat up every now and then so the bulldozer could follow her,” Craig explains.
Now Craig — as the founder of Pease Park Conservancy — is set to be a part of that rich history that will ensure Austinites have plenty of natural park space to enjoy for decades to come.
“Our organization plans on being around a long, long time to ensure the park has a sustainable future,” a statement from the conservancy says.
For more information on Pease Park and the planned restorations and enhancements, visit peasepark.org
Written by: Lynn Wise
Photos provided by Pease Park Conservancy