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Scaling the Work: Neighborhoods and Parks

May 26, 2016
Clark Park, Northline Neighborhood

Clark Park, Northline Neighborhood

Because of the current propensity to do studies of our city only at the 30,000 foot scale—we decided to take on a more grounded and nuanced study of what the current park standards outlined in the Houston Parks and Recreation Department’s 2015 Master Plan mean specifically in our neighborhoods. For the purposes of this study we considered the recommended standards in terms of acres per resident for community, neighborhood and pocket parks combined (2.505 acres/1,000) and compared these standards to the existing conditions. In all cases we took golf courses out of the park area totals.

While we have not had the opportunity to do it for every super neighborhood in the city, below are the stats for 22 of our 88 super neighborhoods. What did we find? Take a look.

Light green circles represent 1/2-mile radius; light red circles are areas without parks (even in neighborhoods that meet the recommended standards)

Map of Neighborhoods Studies



SILENCE. Who do you have to be to have a voice?

May 7, 2016

Planning for the Houston Botanic Garden continues to be opaque.

There is a saying in planning circles that at the first public meeting there is not enough information to provide an educated response and at the second public meeting the project is too far along to make any changes. This statement rings true in the case of the flawed public process for the Houston Botanic Garden. The City of Houston and our elected officials set the precedent in their near dismissal of a public process in the decision to lease Glenbrook Golf Course to the Houston Botanic Garden, now this failure to engage the public is being mirrored by the Garden organization. The question is whether the neighborhood’s concerns are being dismissed because they do not have enough power or wealth? Or whether people, and particularly public officials, really believe that this is the way things should be done?

hbg-blogpost2-imagesLet’s review. It has been over seven months since representatives of the Garden organization, or their designers, have made a public appearance in the neighborhoods of southeast Houston most impacted (Meadowbrook and Park Place). It has been nearly six months since any new updates have appeared on the Houston Botanic Garden website. Oddly though Jeff Ross (the Garden’s Executive Director) seems to believe that he is communicating with the public. The Houston Chronicle article by Claudia Feldman on February 3, 2016 makes this point twice, first stating “. . . organizers have continued to meet with community members, tweak the master plan to include some of their suggestions, ratchet up fund-raising goals and exercise their option to lease the 120-acre site from the city, plans for the garden are taking shape.” This is followed later in the article by a direct quote from Jeff Ross noting “The project is moving forward . . .We have a lease with the city of Houston, which requires us to do continuous outreach to make sure we are hearing what people are saying and somehow addressing their concerns.” Anyone who believes in the public process should at this point be shocked. As a resident of Meadowcreek Village, a neighborhood just a mile from the site, I know there has not been a single public meeting since the unveiling of the plan in a slideshow on September 30, 2015. Those who believe articles in the newspaper equate to a public meeting are misinformed. So, exactly what or whose concerns the Garden leadership is responding to, or what this response looks like, remains a mystery to members of the public and residents in the communities most impacted by the Garden. This should not be the case.

If we compare the Houston Botanic Garden process to that for the re-design of Memorial Park the glaring inequities become very clear. For example, the Memorial Park Conservancy notes that the design team “engaged 3,300 participants through eight large public meetings held across Houston, 20 focused workshops and a three month online survey.” The Houston Botanic Garden has held two public meetings: one on May 12, 2015 and one on September 30, 2015—perhaps a total of 400-500 people. There have been no public meetings since. In other words, there is reason for the Garden’s immediate neighbors to be concerned.

What are the issues . . .

SIZE: Many believed that some concessions would be given to the adjacent neighborhoods because of the large size of the site—120 acres. This has not been the case. No right-sizing studies were completed. And while the City of Houston’s Quality of Life committee studied four gardens that ranged in size from 30 to 90 acres and Gus Wortham stakeholders were conceded a public park in the concept plan, a reduced Botanic Garden, and continuous access to Brays Bayou—no such concessions have been made in the Glenbrook case—the entire site has been captured in the concept plan approved by Mayor Parker in January. Glenbrook stakeholders have not gotten any concessions in large part because of the failure of both public officials and the Garden’s leadership to  properly engage the adjacent communities. The impact of the lack of engagement is to literally silence area residents and leaders (see my previous post here.)


BAYOU GREENWAYS: The Bayou Greenway trails along Sims Bayou would likely have been re-routed along Glenview Drive because of the golf course, as the trails are re-routed with the Garden plan. However, the difference lies in the fact that as proposed the pedestrian link across Sims Bayou will be sandwiched between the back of the strip mall and Captain Benny’s on the 45-feeder road and the “back of house” facilities proposed for the Botanic Garden. This will be very unsafe and uncomfortable.


PEDESTRIAN LINKS: The existing path through the golf course over Sims Bayou, that connects Meadowbrook and Park Place and the amenities on either side, will be eliminated. The resources on the Park Place side include a library, the area’s only bus route, a community center, tennis courts and basketball court. The destinations on the Meadowbrook side include a pool and splash pad.


CHARLTON PARK: The proposed bridge from Park Place through Charlton Park would eliminate a minimum of 1.5 acres of this small, and historic (established in 1926) 8.7 acre park, or a 17% loss.


BREAK IN THE EMERALD NECKLACE: The portion of Sims Bayou that is captured by the Botanic Garden will be the only real break in Houston’s emerald necklace—and I suspect the only place where this break would be politically feasible.

I am done being polite. If I held office in this city I would host a joint public forum with the Garden leadership and truly listen (and hopefully respond) to the concerns of the public. It seems to me we have enough places in our city for the rich to have parties—now we need more great public parks that spread across the diverse landscape of our city—places that are free and open to everyone.

All maps and graphics by Barbara Blanco Gonzalez and Susan Rogers

On Dowling

April 13, 2016

Houstonians are well aware of the “urban revolution” happening in the city and its close-in neighborhoods. Articles and news pieces are shared daily about the changing face of the city. The press often lauds the positive impact that new development can have for once struggling neighborhoods. But there is another story that isn’t told, this is the story about how much has been lost to discriminatory practices and the bulldozer over the last five decades that have made this re-imaging possible.

Crn Dowling and Holman

Underscored by a push for new and expanded park space, transit options and increased housing supply, the march towards densification, beautification and world class status is racing onwards, perpetuating a history of exclusion and inequality on the politically and economically marginalized. Vast areas of the city fabric are being wiped clean and re-visioned in the all-familiar story of new investment sparking much-needed change to areas still lacking many essential services, while longtime residents are priced out of their homes, their communities, and their roots. The cost of this rapid pace of development is the loss of rich and complex urban and cultural traditions that are embedded in a place over time, where residents are under siege of displacement, and in fact the entire neighborhood’s identity is at risk of being erased.

Crn Hadley and Dowling

One example is the mile long Dowling corridor, between Pierce Street to the north and Alabama Street to the south, the once thriving and mixed-use commercial spine of the resurgent Third Ward. According to the historical Sanborn maps of 1950, the street had a tapestry of functions, the epitome of a bustling neighborhood, and the 1949 Houston City Directory tells the same story.

The catalogue included 114 stores; 59 homes; 29 restaurants; 9 auto repair shops; 6 gas stations; 6 apartment buildings; 3 dry cleaners; 3 churches; 3 rooming houses; 2 movie theaters; 2 drug stores; 2 hotels; and a furniture store, bathing house, lodge hall, office building, printing shop, electric repair, radio repair, vacuum repair, private school, barber college, night club and lumber yard.

Sanborn Map 2

In contrast the same corridor in 2015 had just 5 stores; 11 homes; 4 restaurants; 4 churches; 4 office buildings; 2 gas stations; a barber shop; hair salon; bar; dental office; boxing center; and historic ballroom—the Eldorado.  There are currently more empty or vacant lots (69) on Dowling Street than occupied (38).

Vacant Land_Dowling_Vertical-01.jpg
Considered by many as the center of African-American culture for Houston, the neighborhood is deeply rooted in the history and traditions of people of African descent. It was in the Third Ward that residents purchased 10 acres of land at Dowling and Elgin Streets to be designated “Emancipation Park”. Not only was this the first public park in the state of Texas, it was also the only place for people of African descent to gather and celebrate their freedom from slavery on Juneteenth. Today, construction is well underway on the $33.6 million Emancipation Park re-design. The new, towering and all too contemporary structures rising from what was once simply a park has sparked a resurgence of interest in the area, new luxury multi-story town houses are rapidly replacing the traditional shot-gun structures and commercial buildings of the neighborhood.Crn Dowling and Anita.JPG

As we look forward we ask how can we encourage (or even design) new types of development that will bring much needed services to the area without displacement, or the loss of the rich cultural traditions and mixed land uses that once thrived there. Could we start by creating new models of analysis that study a place at a finer grain, learn from the historic character (and in fact the historical record), and encourage greater diversity of both strategies and solutions—instead of wrongly thinking that a new CVS, HEB, or Chili’s, with their seas of asphalt parking, would create the wanted and necessary change?

What was there according to the 1949 Houston City Directory:

Covington Apartments ● Welcome Inn Restaurant ● Sportsman’s Shine Parlor ● Edwards Liquor Store ● Grovey’s Barber Shop ● Brooks PM Detective Agency ● Monk’s Inn Restaurant ● Weiner’s Dry Goods ● Elsie E. Reed Dressmaker ● Stroud Flower Shop ● Foley Apartments ● Shelton Beauty Shop ● Lone Star Barber Shop ● Thomas Fletcher, Physician ● Ewell Costromer, Dentist ● Eureka Pharmacy ● Neyland Laundry ● Square Deal Taxi ● Chie Café ● Virginia’s Beauty Shop ● Zion Hill Baptist Church ● Charles Johnson, Dentist ● Live and Let Live Cleaners ● Mitchell Printing Co. ● Maenett Beauty Shop ● Senate Grill Restaurant ● Rose Lee Liquor Store ● Carmita’s Beauty Shop ● Juanita’s Dress Shop ● Third Ward Fish Market ● Franklin Barber ● Johnson’s Shine Parlor ● Turner Tire Service ● Knoll’s Drug Store ● Dowling Junk and Supply Co. ● Bartholomew Shoe Repair ● M&M Optical Co. ● Ann Beauty Shoppe ● Bryant’s Poultry Co. ● Loyal Barber Shop ● Henderson Auto Repair Shop ● Mills Studio Photography ● Welcome Barber Shop ● Hooper’s Bakery ● Schwartz Grocery ● Webster Appliance Co. ● Walls Beauty Shop ● Spiller’s Shoe Shop ● Walls-Hammond Trade School ● White Kitchen Café ● John Baptist Church ● Woolworth Dry Goods Store ● Johnson’s Dinett Restaurant ● Nanking Food Market ● Martin’s Photo Shop ● Public Laundry ● People’s Foot Health Shop ● Avalon Barbeque Restaurant ● B&M Grocery ● Shirley Woolridge, Shoe Shiner ● Nathaniel Burch, Dentist ● Corilee’s Beauty Shop ● E-Tex Liquor Store ● Sea Food Inn Restaurant ● Triangle Taxi Line ● Quality & Quantity Café ● Tyler Barber College ● Super Sandwich Shop ● Bill’s Fun House (amusement) ● Hou-Tex Liquor Store ● Rhumba Boogie Bar ● Dickerson Recreation Hall Billiards ● Park Theatre ● Ding Dong Diner ● Park Theatre Barber Shop ● Page’s Sandwich Shop ● Shelton Beauty Shop ● Eddie’s Record Distributing Co. ● S & P Cab Line ● Ruck’s Drug Store ● Rettig’s Ice Cream ● Bessie’s Beauty Shop ● Park View Barber Shop ● Modern Barber Shop ● Your Tailors and Cleaners ● Dowling Feed Market ● Bennett’s Liquor Store ● Sam’s Place Restaurant ● Sandy Bar Café ● Dowling Hotel ● Dowling Café ● Albert Bowe, Physician ● Andrew Allen, Dentist ● Hogrobrocks Café ● Caliente Café ● Trocadera Club ● Eldorado Drugs ● Tom Tom Liquor Mart ● Shep’s Liquor Store ● Shepard & Lambert Paint Co. ● Black & Tan Shoe Shine Parlor ● Lone Star Enterprises ● Dowling Employment Agency ● The Famous Kitchen Restaurant ● Caraway Cleaners ● Griffin’s Service Station ● Griffin’s Drug Store ● Frank Cleaners ● Jimmie’s Paint and Tire Shop ● Huckle Buckle Inn ● Victor Barber Shop ● Althea’s Beauty Shop ● Woltman Furniture Co., No. 2 ● Hewett’s Cab Line ● Marlin’s Tavern ● Frierson’s Beauty Parlor ● Black & White Café ● Bronze Beauty Salon ● Oleander Pharmacy ● Scardino Grocery ● Ted’s Barber Shop ● Gammage Café ● Iver Lee’s Hat & Dress Shop ● Minkler Studio Photography ● Holman Liquor Store ● Luerenza Beauty Shop ● Busy Bee Hamburger Stand ● Thomas Radio Shop ● Hester’s Drive In Restaurant ● Shaw’s Shoe Shop ● Liss Grocery & Market ● Narvie Hotel ● Clarence Jarvis Auto Repair 

Pins-Plot BlogAbove: “Animating History” projects by students at the University of Houston’s College of Architecture and Design and School of Art.

FACULTY: Associate Professor Fiona McGettigan (School of Art, Graphic Design Program); Associate Professor Susan Rogers (Architecture); Associate Professor Ronnie Self (Architecture).

STUDENTS: Ben Alcaraz; Maria Fernanda Charles; Ceci Castellanos; Mathilde E Deboes; Hannah Childs; Benjamin William Lueders; Jordan Compton; Felipe Luna; Victoria Courtemanche; Joshua Naputi; Alexa Dominguez; Mark Phillip Ojeda; Jewel Gallagher; David Alexander Osorio; Travis Gamble; Sunny D Patel; Karl Gobaton; Alexandria Sholtis; Dominique Gutierrez; Carlos Sotelo; Laura Hagen; Davy Zhu; Sophia Hepp; Shane Everett Bourgeois; Ramon Hernandez; Stephanie A Crabtree; Matthew Janik; Altair Galgana; Leah Justis; Stephen J Higginbotham; Luis Martinez; Zerik D Kendrick; Brian Murcia; Hanin Afif Malhas; Victoria Pena; Ami Himanshu Patel; Cintia Quevedo; Mychael A Pham; Jessica Rennie; Laura Hill; David Aleksander Ramirez; Andrea Rivas; Madeleine Sanchez; Austin Markham Rees; Lauren Thawley; Hibah Osman; Jordan Vazquez

A Garden for Houston? Or a Community Bamboozled?

June 14, 2015
Glenbrook Golf Course

Glenbrook Golf Course

Exposing a Failed Public Process

The more I learn, the more frustrated and infuriated I become. My frustration is not related to whether we should have a Botanic Garden, though I remain ambivalent on this topic, it is more because of the absolute absence of a public process. Frankly, even calling it a public process is misleading, as there was nothing public about it. Increasingly decisions at the city level, and in fact at all levels of government, are made for many of the wrong reasons and without a public vetting process. In our city government agencies cater to tourists and visitors instead of supporting Houstonians; and instead of building our neighborhoods, the City gives away millions to Wal-mart and budgets a $75 million slush fund for private developers to build luxury living downtown. How did we get here? And what does it have to do with the proposed Houston Botanic Garden?


From what I can dig up, the first discussions regarding a Houston Botanic Garden occurred about five years ago, but did not get serious until 2014. A story in the Houston Chronicle in March 2014, quoted Mayor Parker: “I am committed to having a botanic garden here in the city of Houston. I love gardens. It would be not just a great amenity for Houston, I think it would be a tourism attraction for Houston, and I’m wanting to make it happen.” I guess what the Mayor wants, the Mayor gets.


The first real proposal developed for the Houston Botanic Garden was for the site that is now the historic Gus Wortham Golf Course, originally the Houston Country Club. When this proposal met opposition and a counter proposal was delivered to restore the course from the Houston Golf Association, the City was quick to respond by offering up Glenbrook Golf Course as an alternative. But there is a huge contrast between the public process that followed the proposal for a garden at Gus Wortham and what happened in the Glenbrook case. Not the least of which is the time frame of the Glenbrook decision, which occurred between November 5, 2014 (the date Council voted to restore Wortham) and January 21, 2015 (the date Council voted to lease Glenbrook to HBG)—a mere 11 weeks. The East End stakeholders were engaged by the Garden’s leadership and elected officials for nearly a year, including presentations at civic club meetings, a town hall, and a conceptual plan was produced to give people an opportunity to understand and comment on the proposal.


When the deal making shifted to the Glenbrook site major decisions were swift, without a single public meeting or the benefit of a plan, there were no presentations to civic clubs, or community input. To be clear, Glenbrook was listed as an alternative as early as March 2014, and in the same month presented as an alternative site to the Quality of Life Committee and briefly mentioned by the Mayor at a Town Hall meeting a few days later (though the announcement for this meeting stated a “Public Forum on Gus Wortham”). After this date though there was little word on the street, if you will, on what was happening. This would change at the council meeting on January 21, 2015 when Glenbrook Golf Course was given away.


Twelve people spoke on behalf of the Glenbrook decision at that council meeting split evenly for and against. Of the six for the Botanic Garden two were residents of Glenbrook Valley, one of East Lawndale, one the Director of the Hobby Area Management District, and the other two did not specify. Of those against it, three were from Meadowbrook (the neighborhood immediately adjacent to Glenbrook Golf Course) and the other three did not specify. Jeff Ross, the Director of the Houston Botanic Garden, was the first to comment. When he finished the Mayor stated “I think you can tell from the support on Council that there is a strong vote of support later on today. Not to discourage anyone who wishes to speak. But I don’t know that it is necessary. Just a word to the wise.” The Mayor would state this point again after five people took their turn at the podium. In other words, it really didn’t matter what the public had to say. Throughout the course of the meeting one thing became very clear, people with resources and power, like Jeff Ross, were treated respectfully and with dignity. He was congratulated and thanked by Council Members Gonzales, Pennington, and Costello, and Mayor Parker. Citizens, however, received differential treatment, no questions were asked by Council members to help clarify either support or opposition and as noted speakers were encouraged not to come forward by the Mayor on two occasions.


Speakers in favor of the Garden focused on the Garden’s ability to bring redevelopment to the area, increase the tax base, and provide an amenity. Those speaking against the Garden commented on the lack of public engagement, the absence of a plan, the lack of understanding of the role the green space currently plays in the life of the community, including connecting the Meadowbrook and Park Place neighborhoods, parks, libraries, churches, and schools. The comment session ended with a woman asking how an economically exclusive botanic garden serves the community. Council Members provided no responses to this question or any of the other opposition points.


Listening to the meeting it was clear that the council and mayor already knew what they wanted, and how they would vote—unanimously in favor. Bam, done. If the Garden meets its fundraising deadlines the City of Houston will hand over the 120-acres of public green space along a major bayou for at least the next 30 years, and most likely for much longer. The importance of this is that it will be the only public property in the greenway plan to be so relinquished. In many ways the surrounding communities have been silenced and disenfranchised, and it is yet to be seen whether they will reap any benefits from this major land giveaway. In contrast, Wortham stakeholders were offered a public park, trails, and other amenities. The real question is why did Council assume that the decision to restore Wortham’s golf course was a license to take Glenbrook without a single public meeting?


In the weeks that followed the unanimous Council decision a number of meetings were held in the neighborhood, but there was an overriding sense of defeat, everyone knew it was a done deal, a cloud of anger, misinformation, and disenfranchisement lingered over the crowds.

Glenbrook Aerial

Glenbrook Aerial

Coming soon . . . What Happens Next? A Dive into the Potential Successes and Letdowns of a Garden


$75 + Vision

March 27, 2013


What can you do with $75?  Maybe take someone out for a nice dinner, buy some cool jeans (on sale), or if you are visionary transform a space.  13 UH architecture design students were given $75 to do just this, testing their ideas and craft at full scale.   Yesterday, at the site of the Southern Artists’ Foundation (aka The Mullet), the five completed full-scale installation projects were unveiled.   What did we get?


A super-sized infographic by Rachel Lee, Jose Munoz, and Mirna Santillan, about the rising risk of Autism (the cause behind the Southern Artists’ Foundation).  The project spanning approximately 150’ traces the history of autism and the challenges, concluding with a call to action, to “do something.”


A set of 20 boxes that could be seating, tables, ladders, or combined to become any number of other things.  The boxes made by Jose Pedroza and Norma Santos are constructed entirely from recycled materials and enhanced by the graffiti artists who are out transforming the space everyday.


An interactive installation about the cost of housing in Houston designed by Cameron Goldsmith, Adan Razo, and Isaac Villanueva.  The installation mimicking typical “for sale” signs are packed with facts about housing, including the hourly wage required to rent an apartment at fair market rent, and on the reverse side ask people to share their “American Dream.”


A rope construction by Fidel Castro, Kongci Chan, and Scott Dailey, intended to create a “space,” in the alley.  The installation hangs between two buildings and is made from hundreds of feet of rope creating a complex shadow pattern on the sides of the buildings.


And finally, a giant chess board and set of chess pieces designed and constructed by Aldo Leyva and Michael Roeder.  The chess board, inside the building, supports the vision of the adjacent youth center—that chess is a game of patience and skill—and when practiced can build character.


Thank you to all who participated. Susan Rogers


Watersheds of Potential

March 4, 2013

A flat plain, heavy rainfall (though not in the last several years)—the result a city networked with 2,692 miles of drainage ditches, channels, and bayous.  1,402 miles of this system are manmade (pink).  The remaining 1,290 miles are part of the natural drainage system (blue).  If we re-conceived this system as a watershed of potential, as the Bayou Greenway Initiative is doing, we could have a completely new type of networked city.


THICK Infrastructure

October 25, 2012
Southeast Transit Center

THICK INFRASTRUCTURE is a design research project investigating the intervention, expansion, and re-design of public infrastructure to include elements that enhance civic and public spaces, transforming single-purpose infrastructure landscapes into multi-functional systems.  The project advances the vision of infrastructure as integrated into the fabric of the city, replacing the reality of single-purpose, engineered, and disconnected infrastructural landscapes.

The project tested design ideas and strategies by looking at a selected number of the 28 park and ride lots, 19 transit centers, and linear segments of both the 2500 miles of waterways and ditches and the 200 miles of utility easements in the city.  The ideas and designs provide a window into the potential future of our infrastructure systems and landscapes, and illustrate new ways to merge these systems into our communities and make them more useful and valuable, serving multiple purposes.

Read more…