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Questions about the Memorial Park part of the Uptown/Memorial TIRZ

Lisa Falkenberg reports that some people have raised questions about the Memorial Park part of the Uptown/Memorial TIRZ.

Reforestation is sorely needed in a park devastated by hurricane damage and drought. This is a great deal, city leaders and supporters say, a great way to restore our crown jewel to its former beauty. And we should all trust the Memorial Park Conservancy – a private body whose members aren’t elected and which acts as both fundraiser and watchdog for the park – to make it happen.

But some meddlesome environmentalists aren’t so trusting. This week, they walked into City Hall and demanded the public have a say, a real say, in the deal. They asked for details beyond a press release. They asked for more than a couple of weeks to sort it out and read the small print.

When they were assured by Mayor Annise Parker and some City Council members that the city would have to sign off on any decisions, the environmentalists continued to argue that the public should be involved from the get-go. Not after the fact. Not left holding a rubber stamp.

After all, it’s a public park, a very special one with a rare wildness that offers a unique escape in a city as large as Houston. It belongs to all of us, they say. It is not for sale.

[…]

There are details in a “Letter of Intent” on the project that didn’t make it into the press release. The letter outlining details of the plan states that the Conservancy would be responsible for major decisions including design, bidding, and managing construction projects in the master plan. The city would later have to approve those decisions, but it’s unclear if that leaves enough time for a thorough public vetting.

A troubling section of the letter called “Coordination of Public Relations” points out that the conservancy isn’t subject to public information requests. And the agreement would require all parties – even the public ones that are subject to information requests – to coordinate through private parties before disclosing any information to the public.

When I asked Joe Turner, Houston’s parks director, about that provision, he said it had been awhile since he’d read the letter. He said he’d read it and get back with me if he had anything to add. He didn’t call back.

“The public is a missing piece of this organization. It’s political appointees, private nonprofits and a TIRZ. Where’s the public?” Evelyn Merz, with the Sierra Club, told me. Merz said she’s “appalled” by the plan, but not because she doubts the motives of conservancy members.

“I know they care about the park. That’s not the issue. Are they the same as the public? I would say they aren’t,” she told me.

My first thought upon reading this was to wonder what kind of public input on the management of Memorial Park exists now. If the TIRZ were to go away, I presume the Conservancy would still be responsible for major decisions concerning the park and any attempt to reforest it via grants and private donations, just as it has always been. If the public has been involved in that in any substantive way, I couldn’t tell you what it is.

The difference here is the addition of public funds via the TIRZ. Public money requires public accountability, so it is perfectly reasonable to demand that. Unfortunately, just as there’s no mention of what public involvement currently exists for Memorial Park governance, there is no mention of what type of new or further involvement would make the Mayor’s proposal acceptable. Falkenberg notes that Council would have to approve any decisions made by the Conservancy, but what is being asked for is involvement in the process, before the signoff. I think that’s a fine idea, I’d just like to know what that involvement might look like.

I sent an email to Ms. Merz to ask her what she would like to see done to involve the public more directly, but I didn’t get a response. It’s not unreasonable to me for the Mayor to suggest that Council signoff on any proposal gives the public a voice in the process, but it’s also not unreasonable for Ms. Merz to suggest that the public should have its say earlier in the process, while the ideas are still being debated and proposed. I suppose the ordinance that creates the TIRZ could put some requirements on how the Conservancy operates – open meetings, outreach via social and traditional media for feedback, etc. Again, it’s not clear to me what the specific concerns are. I wish Falkenberg had considered that question. Maybe she felt she didn’t have the space for it in her column, but she does have a Facebook page for her column as well as a long-dormant blog, so she did have avenues to explore it that wouldn’t have cost her space in the news hole. Maybe she’ll write a followup, I don’t know. Campos has more.

UPDATE: Here’s an FAQ about the TIRZ proposal that Campos forwarded to me. Note the following:

How will transparency in the development of the Master Plan be ensured?

The process for creating the Memorial Park Master Plan will follow the same pattern that the Buffalo Bayou Master Plan was developed under. Public meetings will be held during the draft stages; drafts will be circulated for public comment and prior to any finalization of the Master Plan by the consultants selected a public meeting will be held. After that the Master Plan will be brought to the City’s Quality of Life Committee for review and then to City Council for final consideration.

Seems pretty reasonable to me. What do you think, Lisa?

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5 Comments

  1. Jim Bigham says:

    The public is right to be concerned about the financing of this proposal. The Uptown TIRZ, which does not post any financial reports online, has almost $70 Million in existing debt and barely $1 Million in unrestricted cash. This is based on the most recent annual budget published on the City of Houston Economic Development web site.

    Without a big grant, or additional debt it’s unclear where the cash will come from. It seems an expansion of the boundaries and a higher ceiling on debt issue is the primary way for the TIRZ to do more projects in the near term.

    Would reforestation of a public park meet the definition and mission of a public financed entity focused on redevelopment and economic growth? It needs to be done, I just wonder if the TIRZ is the right vehicle.

  2. voter_worker says:

    If the park is an actual forest, it would likely re-forest itself if left to its own devices; there are plenty of surviving mature trees which will produce seeds in huge quantities. The lack of discussion about large expenditures to speed up this natural process by a few years is symptomatic of Houston’s tendency to create bandwagons that discourage discussion of alternate approaches. The City has not inspired confidence in anyone in its development and management of existing parks, and this has caused the emergence of organized, privately-funded interest groups which fill the vacuum created by the City’s minimal management of these assets.

  3. A. Webb says:

    I don’t find the parallel of the Buffalo Bayou Master Plan to the Memorial Park/TIRZ No.16 development reassuring. The Buffalo Bayou Plan is quite a makeover, apparently including commercial development in spots. While there has been some opposition, it appears most are willing to allow some experimentation with this heretofore benignly neglected green space. Memorial Park is an order of magnitude more valuable, in coin and in its place in the hearts of us harried city dwellers. Furthermore, Memorial Park lovers have a noble history of fighting off threats of development. For example, in 1976 a coalition of citizens fought off an attempt to open the park to drilling for oil. Terry Hershey, mentioned in Lisa Falkenberg’s column, was one of them. Even the original agreement for transfer of the park to the city warns that it must be used for “park purposes only or it will revert to the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. “ So when it comes to this latest proposal for the park, some controversy is in keeping with tradition. Until we hear more details, I’m with Ms. Mertz – hands off our park!

  4. […] if you share Lisa Falkenberg’s concerns about this TIRZ, here’s your chance to put them on the record. You might even suggest some […]

  5. […] comparisons to the Riverwalk come straight from that Lisa Falkenberg column about whether there is sufficient transparency built into the TIRZ […]

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