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