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Memorial Park will not become the Riverwalk

Council will vote on the proposed Uptown/Memorial TIRZ this week, which may or may not put an end to some of the wild speculation about what expanding the Uptown TIRZ boundaries to include Memorial Park may mean.

Imagine you’re jogging through Memorial Park, squinting past rows of neon signs in front of fast food joints, the music from bars in a kitschy corridor akin to San Antonio’s Riverwalk barely audible over the roar of nearby bulldozers.

This is the dystopian portrait some citizens paint of a proposal to annex the park into the Uptown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone. They say the move is a takeover of the city’s most precious green space by an unelected board, and fear the process could result in disruptive projects being built before the public has a chance to weigh in.

The problem with this view is that there is no evidence to support it, as city leaders repeatedly have said; Mayor Annise Parker bemoaned the “really goofy theories” that have been swirling.

Adding the park to the nearby Uptown zone is simply a way to funnel $100 million during the next 27 years from one of the city’s richest redevelopment boards into a park ravaged by the 2011 drought and in need of erosion control projects, irrigation, a new jogging trail and other repairs, officials say. Though the Uptown zone or Memorial Park Conservancy may take the lead on select projects, officials stress any improvements in the park must be specified in advance and approved by the city Parks and Recreation Department and by City Council.

Parker pointed out the Uptown zone already is working in a small portion of the park in its boundaries, and that a similar arrangement is succeeding in Emancipation Park.

That has not stopped Councilwoman Ellen Cohen, whose District C includes Memorial Park, from fielding numerous calls and emails from concerned residents.

“What I want to hear from you is that we’re not looking at Ferris wheels along Memorial Park, fast food restaurants lining Memorial Park,” she said to parks director Joe Turner at a hearing last week. “We’re not looking at any of the kinds of things that really would destroy the integrity of the park if this program goes through.”

Turner assured her no such plans are being discussed. The only specific project on the table today is the Uptown zone contributing $1 million toward a new master plan for Memorial Park, which he said would include ample time for public comment, including at least four public meetings, in addition to several hearings before City Council.

The concern about “neon signs” and comparisons to the Riverwalk come straight from that Lisa Falkenberg column about whether there is sufficient transparency built into the TIRZ plan:

They make some important points – none better than Olive Hershey, the stepdaughter of Terry Hershey, the determined conservationist and life member of the conservancy who fought government agencies trying to pave parts of Buffalo Bayou in the 1960s.

“There’s been virtually no disclosure of the real details of this scheme and the public stands to lose any meaningful control of an irreplaceable park in our public lands and waterways,” Hershey told the council Wednesday. “Memorial Park must not be turned over to a group of bureaucrats who may have little understanding of how to nurture and defend this fragile jewel. If the city needs money to reforest the drought-damaged landscape there, it seems a shame to basically turn the park over to TIRZ 16 because the city can’t afford to protect the remaining trees.”

She wondered aloud whether the powerful influence of developers and other interests over a relatively few conservancy members could lead to “neon signs” along trails and retail developments similar to San Antonio’s Riverwalk. The mayor dismissed such scenarios as “far-fetched” and stressed that the park can only be used for “park purposes.”

I didn’t address this when I wrote about it then because it seemed a bit ridiculous to me. I understand the concerns about transparency and public input, but I just don’t find the scenario being put forth here as remotely realistic. If there were ever even a rumor of this sort of thing being proposed or in the works, people would storm city hall with pitchforks and torches. Nobody who could be elected to anything in Houston would allow this to stand. I don’t understand where this is coming from. There may be less-farfetched things that could happen, but I don’t know what they are, and it’s still not clear to me what level and form of public input would be acceptable to assuage these fears – I still haven’t seen any suggestions to that effect. As noted in the story, the TIRZ meetings are open to the public, and five of the eight members are appointed by the Mayor and Council, which gets back to that pitchforks and torches thing. I totally get the desire to ensure that Memorial Park is preserved. I’m right there with that. I just want to know what the remedy is that would also allow for the needed improvements and infrastructure repairs to be made to the park.

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2 Comments

  1. Karl Ittmann says:

    Why oppose it? Because it is bad public policy. The use of TIRZ mechanisms has become too widespread and no longer serves the purpose of developing blighted areas. It mortgages future general revenue to a very narrow purpose. This process has been repeated over and over, for example the dedication of hotel and car rental taxes to the sports authority. It complicates or even obviates planning for long term capital expenditures. Instead of investments, the city simply cobbles together another dedicated finance mechanism. I can see why Parker likes it. It allows her to continue her nonsensical adherence to not restoring the unfortunate cut in property taxes during the White administration and obscures the taking on of public debt by placing it within the TIRZ. If they want bus lanes of all kinds, then let METRO fund it, since it won’t be building a rail line.

  2. Jim Bigham says:

    “and obscures the taking on of public debt by placing it within the TIRZ”

    Yes, over $300 million in public debt on the books of local TIRZ. The Uptown TIRZ portion is $70 million today, with up to another $85 million if the plan is approved. There’s doesn’t appear to be any issue on anyone’s part with replanting trees in Memorial Park. The question is whether the TIRZ should borrow money to do so?

    Or they could wait 5,7,10 years and pay for it from the increased tax collections. There’s no cash today to do much beyond city approved projects. Can the TIRZ really borrow more efficiently than the COH?