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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

 

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. June 14, 2015 21:30

    Although at first it sounded all so wonderful, its unfortunate that the process was so disengaged with these neighborhoods since will directly transform their quality of life, with its consequential presence, in triggering increased traffic, property values, future development, parking, etc..

  2. Cathy Sessums permalink
    June 16, 2015 09:51

    I look forward to the garden in my area

  3. MRM permalink
    June 17, 2015 10:40

    Glenbrook was one of only two sites in contention in March 2014, more than 9 months before it was selected as the location for the botanic garden. It was thoroughly vetted in public meetings and reported in the media. For example:

    http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Which-park-should-be-home-to-Houston-botanical-5361822.php

    http://www.houstontx.gov/council/c/committee/20140326/botanic.pdf

    The botanic garden is a welcome addition to the southeast side of town.

  4. Susan McLeland permalink
    July 7, 2015 12:12

    Thanks so much to Susan Rogers for her dead on comments
    I was the next to the last speaker at the ill fated Council session on Glenbrook
    And have subsequently been working and researching to find the avenues to overturn this giveaway. I have reviewed this ordinance/contract at length and must question the legality of this document on several levels.

    As Ms. Rogers pointed out NO public meetings were ever held on Glenbrook. This is a direct violation of Texas Parks and Wildlife Code Chapter 26, which requires that if the city proposed land use change of any public parkland, they must post 30 day written notice and conduct a public hearing. Again this mayor felt she doesn’t have to comply with the law.

    There were other legalities that the City ignored in their rush to give the Mayor what she wanted for her buddy, Jeff Ross. Don’t forget Jeff Ross was the spearhead of Rebuild Houston who brought you the Drainage Fee from Hell. Incidentally the Texas Supreme Court just ruled against it a few weeks ago, saying the voters were misled by the language.

    As we go forth to battle against this obvious giveaway I urge readers to
    1. Hold Council Members accountable for their action and their inaction on the issue (I personally begged them to table this )
    2. Vote for those candidates who are willing to make this issue important (land use of public property is becoming increasingly paramount)
    3. Support the group working to oppose the giveaway – donations for legal action is needed.
    4. Discourage any one from donating to Houston Botanic Gardens until their focus changes from Glenbrook. (They have been offered at least 11 other sites and should focus on purchasing their own land)
    5. Embrace and support better stewardship of all public parks and golf courses within Houston
    6. Remain vigilant as this can and will happen to the public recreational venues in your neighborhood
    7. Support the Houston Golf Association as it’s raises funds to save municipal golf in this city. (What we could be – check out San Antonio’s Alamo Golf Trail)

    And never let the Mayor have the last words – it is NOT a done deal.

  5. AJT permalink
    August 22, 2015 13:44

    MRM’s comments about Glenbrook Golf Course having been thoroughly vetted represent a thoroughly flawed view of the democratic process. Firstly, the mere fact of making Gus Wortham or Glenbrook Golf Courses –both of which are public lands– into a decided either/or choice to give away to a private organization lacked any real consideration of the voting and taxpaying public. Secondly, claiming that meetings that were held to focus on Gus Wortham as the site, with Glenbrook as a mere aside, certainly doesn’t meet the obligation of responsible public officials towards residents near Glenbrook Golf Course. What should those who objected to the Glenbrook site have then done? Gone and pitted themselves against their relatively nearby neighbors in Idylwood by insisting that the HBG go in at Gus Wortham to avoid losing their own local course? It’s difficult to tell whether that was just thoughtlessness on the city’s part, or a purposeful divide-and-conquer effort that just failed to work, though I know where I would place my money. And why did it fail to work? Because the people of Park Place and Meadowbrook considered themselves to be worthy of just as much focused attention from their city councilmember as Idylwood apparently is, although we have quickly learned to be disillusioned by this administration and by GM Gallegos. Six years spent on Gus Wortham, with perhaps six months spent on Glenbrook. That the mayor didn’t really care about the local area around Glenbrook isn’t particularly surprising, as she is on record as having said as long ago as her at-large councilmember days that she considered Meadowbrook (the neighborhood directly adjacent to Glenbrook’s entrance) to be “beyond help” as an organized neighborhood. Meadowbrook recently revived their civic club primarily because of how dismissive city officials have been towards them regarding issues surrounding the golf course. Park Place (the neighborhood on the other side of Glenbrook) however, has had a thriving civic organization for years. Know how many times anyone spoke to them about the HBG at Glenbrook Golf Course before the contract was signed? Once, at a July 2014 meeting where they were misled to believe that Jeff Ross (Director of the HBG) didn’t want that course anyway, although at a later meeting, Andy Icken and Robert Gallegos both admitted the decision had already been made if not finalized earlier in May of that year. If you don’t believe me, then ask the Park Place Civic Club secretary to check the minutes like I did. It wasn’t even presented to them until it was, by city officials own description, already decided. Mayor Parker’s term ending in November does of course leave her and her administration free to treat the area around Glenbrook with as much contempt and arrogance as they like … she doesn’t need their votes anymore (although she would do well to remember that if she ever does run for office again this will be remembered). Jeff Ross, director of the HBG, has stated smugly in several meetings that he “was given” the site, as if Glenbrook Golf Course was Mayor Parker’s own personal property. The real surprise though is the arrogance of CM Robert Gallegos, who behaves as if he won his seat in an overwhelming majority instead of from the slightest of plurality’s which then required a special run-off election. This arrogance would be ill-suited to someone in a position of exponentially greater authority and even with an overwhelming mandate. So it is curious to see in CM Gallegos, who recently stood up a Park Place Civic Club meeting, holding a copy that the secretary of the PPCC had printed as an exhibit from the COH contract with the HBG and accused the people who had dispersed it as being liars. The delightful irony of the situation is that he was calling himself, Mayor Parker and her administration, and the director and boardmembers of the HBG all liars, but since we can be pretty certain that was not his actual intent, it shows how utterly desperate he is to smear opponents of the Glenbrook site as liars. Good luck this November Mr. Gallegos …

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