A Garden for Houston? Or a Community Bamboozled?
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.
Coming soon . . . What Happens Next? A Dive into the Potential Successes and Letdowns of a Garden