Kingsbury Commons in Austin’s Pease Park demonstrates what a new era of public investment can look like.
Client Pease Park Conservancy
Landscape Architect Ten Eyck Landscape Architects
Architects Clayton Korte (Support Buildings /Tudor Cottage); Mell Lawrence Architects (Tree House)
Contractor Harvey-Cleary Builders
Civil Engineer GarzaEMC
Lighting Design Studio Lumina
Structural Engineer Architectural Engineers Collaborative
MEP Engineer Jerry Garza and Associates
Accessibility Consultant Altura Solutions
Graphics & Wayfinding Page/Dyal Branding and Graphics
Irrigation Design Sweeney & Associates
Ecologist Siglo Group
SITES Consultant Regenerative Environmental Design
Suspended within the tree canopy, a circle of visitors lie on their backs, enjoying the feeling of hanging in midair as children of all ages weave in and out of the group, playing a game of chase. Unfazed by the height of the 40-foot-wide radial steel-framed Tree House or the instability of its woven mesh floor, the children run back and forth with glee. Parents, on the other hand, climb into the pod with trepidation and disbelief. Its round form is a striking punctuation at the end of the woven steel mesh pathway that leaves the ground plane of the park, climbing into the trees. Designed by Mell Lawrence Architects in collaboration with the structural engineers at the Architectural Engineers Collaborative, the Tree House is part of the newly renovated Kingsbury Commons, an activity-packed green space that welcomes visitors into the slender 42-acre Pease Park.
Designated by the city of Austin as a district park (one that serves the immediate community within a two-mile radius), Pease Park follows the course of spring-fed Shoal Creek. Historically defining the western boundary of the city of Austin (the area west of Shoal Creek was considered the domain of the Comanches as late as 1896), the creek divides the hills of the Edwards Plateau to the west from the Blackland Prairie to the east. It is a clear and dramatic expression of the Balcones Fault, which cuts through Texas in an arc running from Dallas in the north, through Austin, to Del Rio in the southwest. Its freshwater percolates through the rocky limestone bed, helping to replenish the Edwards Aquifer water system, a precious source of drinking water for many in Central Texas. However, the creek also acts as a quick funnel for surface runoff from expanding subdivisions as far away as The Domain, 10 miles to the north. Its water level rapidly fluctuates between barely wet, fairly wet, and suddenly far too wet to cross, as flash floods rage through its steep canyon-like escarpments.
In this time of rapid urbanization and rising inequity, the city park can be a democratizing space offering equitable access and supporting community health and well-being. Never more than during the pandemic has the importance of shared open space been demonstrated: During the mandated lockdown, cities saw a large increase in park goers relying on the green space as an essential outlet for maintaining their physical and mental health. The park was one of the only places in the city where people could find space to relax, exercise, and socialize while maintaining safe physical distance.
The Friends of Pease Park, a group of dedicated volunteer neighbors led by Richard Craig, has spearheaded the efforts to preserve Pease Park and secure its role as a natural and healthy city amenity for Austin. Out of this group, the Pease Park Conservancy was formed in 2008. Their tireless and monumental grassroots efforts helped plant over 500 “trees for Pease,” reversing the decline and degradation the park fell subject to as the city’s already minimal park maintenance budget dwindled.
The conservancy followed a model of private caretaking that began with New York City’s Central Park Conservancy and Betsy Rogers, the San Antonio Alamo Heights native who in the 1980s raised millions of dollars in private donations to restore and maintain NYC’s most iconic park. Thirty years later, the Friends of the High Line conservancy — which was co-founded, coincidentally, by another San Antonian, Robert Hammond — repeated the accomplishment, partnering with the city of New York as the primary steward and caretaker of the newly created High Line park.
The Pease Park Conservancy embraced the multiheaded client structure, partnering with the Austin Parks Foundation and the city of Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department, and invited the award-winning urban design and landscape architecture firm Wallace Roberts & Todd to create a master plan for the park that would ensure its continued stewardship and protect the legacy of their hard work. WRT’s founder, Ian McHarg, revolutionized the field of landscape architecture with his groundbreaking nature-first approach to urban development. His conservation and restoration methods of hydrological systems have successfully managed flood risk through several “new town” urban developments, including The Woodlands near Houston. Together with the ecologists at Siglo Group and Austin architecture firm Clayton & Little (now Clayton Korte), WRT set out the ecological vision of the conservancy in its 2014 Master Plan.
The private funding raised by the Pease Park Conservancy, including a generous donation from the Moody Foundation, was a game-changer. The nearly $15 million made available for construction costs allowed for a caliber of landscape design, led by Ten Eyck Landscape Architects, that would have been almost impossible to create or maintain on a city budget.
Kingsbury Commons is located at the southern end of Pease Park, where the hillside naturally parts. Named for the park’s southernmost boundary, Kingsbury Street, it was planned to be an active center, the heart and soul of the park. Ten Eyck’s consultation with neighborhood stakeholders revealed the community’s desire to remove the clutter of the separate, existing program elements and open up views and access to the big lawn, already ringed by a healthy and thriving canopy of elms, oaks, maples, and ash trees.
After a lengthy city approval process, Ten Eyck was able to capture water from an existing seep (a small spring where water comes up from the ground) on Kingsbury Street, integrating it into the ecologically forward design of Kingsbury Commons. Previously, the seep had washed roadway surface pollutants into the creek’s water system, as evidenced by large puddles of water standing at Kingsbury Street and Parkway on a hot and dry summer’s day. Regenerative Environmental Design and Ten Eyck worked together to design the restored streambed based upon a reference ecosystem within the park. The native, water-loving plants slow the water from the seep, filter out pollutants, and provide a haven for wildlife.
In the riparian zone adjacent to Shoal Creek and on the forested hillside, Siglo Group recommended planting strategies using dense mottes of native plants to compete with invasive species and encourage biodiversity instead of a monoculture.
Ten Eyck integrated a curved and meandering ribbon of locally sourced Lueders limestone that now redirects the waters from the spring head, weaving the seep down the hillside following the natural topography of the site. The stone serves as a ribbon wall, path edge, and seating element throughout the site, tying together the various programmatic elements and serving as a canvas for the engraving of donor names.
The water element is most noticeable in the Karst stone interactive play feature. Water flows over loose rocks through the Swiss cheese limestone and enters a drain inlet below, mimicking the natural process of water flowing into a limestone aquifer. Health and safety are bolstered by a Defender Regenerative Media Filtration system, a vibrant blue, brilliant piece of equipment required by the city to keep the water clean and safe for splashing kiddos. The pump and filter are neatly housed in a bank of support buildings nestled at the base of the hill. Designed by Clayton Korte to include public restrooms, the buildings share a similar expressed raw steel structure with the Tree House. The support building’s lightweight canopies and woven steel framework are akin to a minimal Texas Hill Country vernacular style and are lifted to allow the elements to flow under, through, and out without obstruction. A textured 1.5-inch vertical board-formed concrete outer shell doubles as a low retaining wall.
Though some marked moments of significant infrastructural investment over the course of the park’s long history, few existing structures were deemed worthy of preservation. The post-Depression era, WPA-built concrete picnic tables and benches serve as reminders of the public investment in civic spaces of the first New Deal. The existing Tudor Cottage, built as a public restroom and one of the first public park facilities in Austin, remains on its original site. With Harvey-Cleary as the general contractor, Clayton Korte preserved the integrity of this historic structure and adapted it into an approximately 500-sf community room available to rent as an event space. Its ceilings are vaulted, filling the space with light, and the north wall with full-height glazing opens to connect the room to a new public terrace, quadrupling the user capacity.
The oldest remaining prominent structures on the site are the limestone archways marking the historic pedestrian entrance to the southern green and the big lawn. Dating back to 1926, they were commissioned by Richard Niles Graham, the founder of Enfield Realty, a group responsible for much of the development of the old West Austin neighborhoods surrounding Kingsbury Commons. His grandmother Lucadia Pease and grandfather Elisha M. Pease, Texas Unionist and thrice governor of Texas, donated the entire property to the city for use as a public park in 1875.
Historically, the creek banks were home to many different cultures, including Native Americans, Mexican Americans, and formerly enslaved African Americans. Little evidence remains of these communities except in clues left in the names, like Wooten Woods, Polecat Hollow, and Custer’s Meadow, of the outdoor “rooms” found along the park’s length.
The project is the first Austin city park to receive SITES Gold certification. SITES is a project rating system spearheaded by the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, the American Society of Landscape Architects, and the United States Botanic Garden as a complement to the U.S Green Building Council’s LEED certification. The SITES rating elevates the value of sustainable landscape design, highlighting the vital role that providing ecologically diverse, sustainable, and accessible civic green spaces plays in improving our cities and protecting our environment.
Kingsbury Commons is the latest in a series of innovative Austin city parks that have opened in the last year through public-private partnerships, including Waterloo Park and the Alliance Children’s Garden, part of an impressive network of parks linked via the Austin hike-and-bike trail. However, through its stellar design quality and thoughtfully activated programming, the new Kingsbury Commons has become a regional attraction, receiving visitors from far beyond its designated service area and raising the expectation of what a city park can be.
Nkiru Gelles, Assoc. AIA, is a lead designer for milk + honey in Austin.