New turf brings new life to Austin concert venue

PHOTO COURTESY OF AERO PHOTO (WWW.AEROPHOTO.COM).
An aerial photo shows part of Lady Bird Lake and the area getting new grass paid for by C3 Productions.

Rock concert audiences seldom get credit for aiding the environment. If anything, dancing fans trample the turf wherever a concert is held. However, one city-often dubbed “the live music capitol of the world”-has found a way to help them contribute.

In Austin, Texas, some concert producers have donated a large portion of their proceeds to pay for serious renovation to one of their music venues: part of the city’s historic Zilker Park. Zilker lies at the heart of Austin, surrounded by skyscrapers. It’s one of the most popular places in the city, home to the holiday Trail of Lights, the Kite Festival and Blues on the Green.

The need for park renovation became obvious at a concert held one dry weekend in 2005, when the dust rising from the ground got so bad that a number of audience members were taken to the emergency room with dust inhalation issues.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF AUSTIN PARKS & RECREATION DEPARTMENT, UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED.
Rolls of Tifway 419 bermudagrass sit waiting, ready to renew part of Austin’s Zilker Park.

Never again

When Austin City Limits (ACL) held its annual music festival at Zilker in October, there was 42 acres of golf course-style new green turf and a newly installed state-of-the-art irrigation system, paid for by C3 Presents, Inc., the concert producer.

Much needed by the park, these infrastructure improvements are expected to cut costs on maintenance while helping the grounds to withstand high-traffic loads. “The ACL concert has a major impact on the grounds,” said Tony Arnold, CIP manager for the Austin Parks Department. (The 2009 program included major acts like Pearl Jam, Kings of Leon and the Dave Matthews Band.)

“It’s a win-win situation all around,” said Charlie McCabe, executive director of the nonprofit Austin Parks Foundation. “Something like this donation doesn’t come along very often.”

C3 Presents is committed to pay the Austin Parks Foundation $2.5 million to cover the improvements to the area. It amounts to the foundation’s largest donation ever. Earlier donations from C3 Presents paid for upgrades to a pumping station and pipes to carry water from Lady Bird Lake to the park.

The irrigation system previously in place was one that had grown over the years, since the 1940s. “It held up very well,” said Arnold, “but it was time to make it more plush. What we had in the past was more of a backyard variety irrigation system; the new one is automated.”

Gene Faulk, golf course maintenance manager for Austin and a former course superintendent, worked on the project, along with coordinator Christopher Dry, a golf course designer. The goal was to take this dusty soccer field and turn it into respectable, healthy turf, worthy of a golf course.

“Zilker Park is one of the crown jewels of the Austin Parks & Recreation Department,” Faulk said. “Over the years, this particular site’s use has been expanded to include some really big events. That’s where they had the Rolling Stones concert, the X-Games, the ACL festival. However, we had a lack of infrastructure there that was really limiting the use of the site.”

Faulk explained that the renovation project was divided into three phases, to cut down on erosion. No more than two-thirds of the park was exposed at one time.

“Phase one was to put in an 8-inch mainline throughout the park,” he said. “We went with a very manual system, which involved water canons connected to a potable water system.”

Though there was no recurrence of the dust problem for the 2006 event, the system was extremely inefficient, Faulk said, and required energy to develop potable water and pump it, as well as man power to operate the water canons.

The next phase of the project was to replace the old pump station on Lady Bird Lake with a new mainline going from the pump station site to the Zilker site. They used a new VFD (variable frequency drive) pump station manufactured by Flotronics (now HT Pump Specialties). It cost about $350,000. “That got us off of the potable water,” Faulk said, “and onto lake water, but we still were left with a very manual system. We had guys out there at night-it was a nightmare.”

Beginning in January 2009, Phase 3 of the project involved a minor grading of the park, “taking out some of the humps and bumps.” That was followed with about 3,000 cubic yards of Dillo Dirt, compost made by the city of Austin from yard trimmings and treated sewage sludge. “That was for the nutrients,” Faulk said, “and to increase the water-holding capacity of that very sandy soil. It’s alluvial material when you think about it. It’s from the old Colorado River, and it’s very sandy.”

The next step was to put in an automatic irrigation system. “That was a big, big jump,” Faulk said. “It cost about $650,000. We had a partial system that was very antiquated and went with the old pump station, but it was not working. That’s why we ended up with a dust bowl before.”

The new system has more than 300 sprinkler heads from Rain Bird, with computerized, Internet-based irrigation controllers manufactured by Rain Master. “We can actually monitor and make changes to the system over any Internet connection anywhere,” Faulk said, “and it’s password-protected, so only our appropriate staff can do it.” He said they chose this system over others because it fit best with their staff needs and training levels. “I come from a golf course maintenance background,” Faulk said, “and this is something new for our parks people. They’re often pulled in a lot of different directions; there’s a lot of turnover. This system was easy for our staff to use.” Another advantage was that it connected to a weather station at nearby Camp Mabry, run by the federal government. The parks department did not have to operate its own weather station. “We just access the data,” Faulk said. “We have no weather station maintenance.”

In the past, that part of the park had common bermudagrass and lots of weeds, and it was mowed once a week. The new grass that has been put in will be mowed twice a week.

The last step in the renovation project was sodding with Tifway 419 bermudagrass. “We feel like it’s going to give us our best potential for recovery after these major events,” Faulk said. “It’s one of the grasses that’s typically used on golf course fairways and is designed to tolerate heavy traffic. It gives you a real dense turf that can take both foot traffic and the vehicular traffic during set-up. Set-up for the ACL Festival can take about two weeks, and then there’s the takedown. We feel like we’ve got some infrastructure in place now where we at least have a chance.”

Work continued through the spring on the improved lawn area, which was open for the ACL Music Festival in October.
Row after row of new sod makes this worn section of the park green again.

The city is providing the money for the $2.5 million project up front and will be paid back over a five-year period by C3 Presents. “The improvements being made will be available to park users for every day of the year,” Faulk said. Besides grass, the park has new volleyball courts, a shower house and six new drinking fountains.

The sod being planted was chosen because it’s good for high-traffic, sunny areas.

“Part of this whole project was providing our parks staff with the equipment they needed to make this come off,” he said. Among their purchases was new mowing equipment: a Toro 7-gang reel mower on a pull-frame and a Jacobsen deep core aerifier to relieve compaction. “After these events,” Faulk said, “there is going to be a need to relieve that compaction.” A turf manager will be hired to oversee maintenance.

“With the addition of this new larger equipment, we’ll be able to reduce man-hours, save on the cost of maintenance and have a better-looking field,” Tony Arnold said.

For now, the park area is beautifully green, while much of the rest of central Texas is suffering from a long drought and a summer with temperatures in the 100s.

What they’re doing at Zilker seems to be working.

Surviving Its First Test

When the Austin City Limits Music Festival opened on Friday, October 2, everybody loved the new lush green grass at Zilker Park.

However, the crowds at the festival had only one day of ideal weather to enjoy the new $2.5 million lawn. Rain swept in on Saturday, but the music continued on all eight stages, through intermittent showers; no performances were canceled.

By Sunday, the combination of rain and the feet of some 65,000 enthusiastic concertgoers each day had turned the beautiful new turf into a muddy mess. By the time Pearl Jam played the final set that night, attendees were walking around barefoot, sliding through the mud (Check out the videos listed under “ACL Mud Fest” on YouTube), or merely sacrificing their sneakers to the slosh. What made it worse was that the mud smelled like compost because the grass had been fertilized with Dillo Dirt, made from treated sewage.

ACL organizers put out bales of hay to stabilize the ground, but it was only a partial success. Still, the show continued and the crowds looked happy.

The next day, parks department officials were hopeful that the grass was still there, underneath the mud, and was still alive. They tried hosing down the lawn to wash the mud off the sod, but Austin weather remained soggy. The next step would be to allow the lawn to dry so the grass can break through. Machines will be used to aerate the soil and speed the process.

“The heavy foot traffic combined with the rainy conditions allowed the soil to be brought to the surface covering the grass,” said Gene Faulk, project coordinator for the parks department. “Once the mud is removed, the grass should recover quickly,” he added.

That 46-acre section of Zilker Park was scheduled to be closed at least through the end of October, possibly longer if rains persist.

Officials promise the area will be open in time for the next big event, the Trail of Lights held during the holidays. C3, the group that produced the concert, is to pay for sod cleanup and repairs.

Anne Morris, a writer about environmental issues, lives in Austin, Texas.