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Houston Parks and Recreation Department

It’s not easy being green

I have mixed feelings about this.

The “Blue Trees” artist has stirred up a hive of trouble for Houston’s parks and recreation department, complaining that the city plagiarized an installation he created five years ago by re-painting the same grove of crepe myrtles. This time, the trees are a vivid green.

Konstantin Dimopolous, who engaged dozens of volunteers to help make “Blue Trees Houston” in 2013, said the harmless paint formula he shared was developed over many years and is his intellectual property.

Parks department officials beg to differ, pointing out that trees have been painted for centuries, across cultures.

“We thought we did our homework,” said Abel Gonzales, the parks department’s deputy director of greenspace management. He said he cleared the green paint project last October with parks department planners who told him there were no other active agreements for art among the crepe myrtle groves within the traffic cloverleafs at Waugh Drive and Allen Parkway.

He chose the same area Dimopolous had used because it’s a high-profile location, he said, and also because crepe myrtles have smooth trunks that make them easier to paint than, say, oak trees.

[…]

Dimopolous said he was not after money or a lawsuit, but he did want an apology — and he wants the green paint removed, because people think the new work is his.

“It looks horrible, and it really has no relevance anymore here,” said Dimopolous, who is in Houston working on a large commercial commission. He is building “Windgrass,” a tall, stick-like kinetic sculpture for Bridgeland, next to entrance signage for the 11,400-acre, master-planned community along the Grand Parkway near Cypress.

Gonzales and others in the parks department aren’t likely to concede that they’ve done anything wrong. “We’re sorry he’s upset, but no one even thought about him,” Gonzales said.

One of the Parks people, who wasn’t in Houston when Dimopoulos did his installation in 2013, said she came up with the paint for this work on her own via trial and error. On the one hand, I agree that painting trees isn’t a new or unique idea, and the fact that an artist once did this doesn’t preclude anyone else from ever doing it. On the other hand, it would have been nice to give the guy a heads-up, especially since it’s the same location and he’s back in town on another project. Beyond that, I say I was glad to see the new painted trees when I first spotted them a few weeks ago, and I hope to see more art like this elsewhere in the city. Glasstire and It’s Not Hou It’s Me have more.

Mayor Turner requests study of Confederate statues

From the inbox.

Mayor Sylvester Turner has asked top staff members to study whether statues related to the Confederacy should be removed from city property.

The mayor commented about the statues Tuesday at a City Council meeting after members of the public urged the city to remove the statues from its public spaces because, they said, the statues honor slavery and racism.

Staff members will compile an inventory of the statues and “provide me with recommendations about what steps we need to take,” the mayor said.

“It is my hope that we can, in a very positive and constructive way, move forward,” Mayor Turner added.

No date has been set for action on the issue.

Public comments may be sent by e-mail to cultural.affairs@houstontx.gov

Here’s the Chron story related to this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston residents stirred by racial clashes in Virginia are demanding removal of a Confederate monument that has sat largely unnoticed more than 100 years in a quiet corner of Sam Houston Park.

The downtown monument – titled Spirit of the Confederacy – features a bronze statue of a defiant, winged angel holding a sword and palm leaf.

“To all the heroes of the South who fought for the Principles of States Rights,” reads the inscription.

For Timbergrove resident Christina Gorczynski, it’s time for the monument to go.

Gorczynski joined about a dozen residents at City Hall Tuesday in urging city leaders to take down a symbol they say celebrates slavery and racism.

“As a city, we must demonstrate our commitment to fulfilling the unfulfilled promise of equity for all,” Gorczynski said. “We must demolish the symbols that celebrate an evil institution of slavery – those that through their mere existence reinforce and maintain a culture of white supremacy.”

In response, Mayor Sylvester Turner ordered city staff to assess Houston’s public art collection and recommend future steps in light of the requests for the city to remove Confederate monuments.

“The important thing is that as we move forward, that we recognize history is also what it is,” he said during the City Council’s public session Tuesday. “History has its good. History has its bad. But I do think it’s important for us to review our inventory and then to make the most appropriate decision that’s in the best interest of our city and that does not glorify those things that we shouldn’t be glorifying.”

This is the statue in question. Which, like nearly all statues of its kind, was built decades after the end of the Civil War as a way of demonstrating the restoration of white dominance of political power. It’s the very history of these statues that tells us what they’re about. As a Yankee who has always understood the Confederacy to be a treasonous violent rebellion for the purposes of preserving slavery, I have no problem at all with ashcanning these anachronisms. Put them in a museum where their historic context can be properly documented, or put them in a basement somewhere, I don’t care. If Baltimore can do it, so can Houston. Gray Matters and the Press have more.

Connecting trails

Always good to see.

WhiteOakBayouPathAlabonsonAntoine

The Houston Parks and Recreation Department and Houston Parks Board recently celebrated the completion of the White Oak Bayou Path, the first in a series of projects creating a more connected system of hike-and-bike trails in the city.

Mayor Annise Parker and District A council member Brenda Stardig joined the organizations for a ribbon cutting ceremony on Thursday, July 9.

Joe Turner, director of the city’s parks and recreation department, said that funding for this project was made possible through a $15 million federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant for regional bike and pedestrian trails.

The grant will fund six projects.

The White Oak Bayou Path covers a stretch from Alabonson Road to Antoine Drive where pedestrian traffic had been previously blocked.

“We’re trying to close up gaps in different pieces of our trail system,” Turner said. “It’s an eighth of a mile, but it was a crucial piece with a bridge.”

These gaps, where the paths don’t meet, caused users to stop and turn around. Closing the gaps they connects paths to make thoroughfares.

The other projects include the White Oak Bayou Path between 11th Street and Stude Park, as well as a connection to residential neighborhoods from the path and to Buffalo Bayou Path, which will also include a .3 mile gap closure between Smith and Travis.

East downtown will gain connections between transit, residential and commercial spaces, totaling 8.6 miles of gap closures.

Brays Bayou Path will also benefit from a 1.6 mile gap-closure project and a .6 mile alternative transit path.

Turner said that once all of the projects are completed, the city will have an alternative transportation system with connected off-road hike-and-bike trails.

[…]

Roksan Okan-Vick, executive director of the nonprofit Houston Parks Board, said this segment is an important piece of the Bayou Greenways 2020 project, which will create a continuous system of parks and 150 miles of hike-and-bike trails along Houston’s major waterways.

“We have a fairly large and ambitious project underway,” she said.

Okan-Vick said the Houston Parks Board was successful in securing a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant.

“We did the legwork, and we were lucky enough to be approved for the grant,” she said.

Okan-Vick said that there are three gaps on White Oak Bayou that needed to be addressed.

“This is the first one, and if you go further downstream, there is another we are working on,” she said.

When all trail sections are completed, it will be possible to travel the path along White Oak Bayou from far northwest Houston to Buffalo Bayou and downtown Houston, Turner said. “It gives us an alternative to our current transportation system,” he said. “And the hike-and-bike network allows us to connect pieces we’ve never connected before in our city. Lots of trails have been built over time, but they weren’t connected.”

I’m a big fan of this project, which covers a lot of territory and will greatly add off-road capacity for walkers and bicyclists. Longer term, other parts of this project will help make some dense infill development better for residents and neighbors. It will be an enduring legacy of Mayor Parker’s administration. Good work, y’all.

What kind of Memorial Park do you want?

Council is set to vote on the Memorial Park Conservancy plan, whether you like it or not.

Joe Turner does not want more drawings gathering dust on a shelf.

Houston’s parks and recreation director inherited more than a few unrealized master plans when he was hired 10 years ago. Now he’s shepherding the most complex one yet, a detailed plan to restore, improve and maintain Memorial Park, the largest and most heavily used green space in the city.

Thomas Woltz describes his blueprint as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help save a green space three times bigger than New York’s Central Park. It doesn’t lack for ambition, restoring the ecosystem, shifting several ballfields to the park’s northeast corner, increasing parking spaces by 30 percent and creating two dramatic land bridges spanning Memorial Drive that reconnects the park’s major sections.

“We feel like we’ve enlarged the park without any land acquisition,” said Woltz, a partner in one of the nation’s premier landscape architecture firms, Nelson Byrd Woltz.

But it’s an election year, and vested interests around the park are taking aim at new ideas they don’t like. Tuesday is the last day for public comment on the plan.

Then, on Wednesday Mayor Annise Parker and City Council will be asked to vote on the plan, 18 months after they unanimously approved its creation. The plan was created through a partnership of Turner’s department, the Memorial Park Conservancy and the Uptown Houston tax increment reinvestment zone, which committed $3.2 million in financing for the plan.

[…]

In addition to the land bridges, the plan’s most ambitious ideas involve infrastructure, including fire suppression and irrigation systems, stormwater management and a 30 percent increase in parking spaces. Those projects would happen first. They fall within the realm of the TIRZ, which by law can support infrastructure only with the tax money it collects.

In interviews with the Houston Chronicle, Woltz and Sarah Newbery, Uptown’s park project manager, have said the tab might be $300 million, but last week they were loath to use any figures.

Newbery said the plan simply tries to define goals for what the park should become over time, if and when funding become available to build the things it proposes. If council approves the plan, the team soon will address where and how to begin, calculate costs and put every item through “a measured and thoughtful public process,” she said.

See here and here for some background on the plan; see here, here, and here for background on the TITZ part. The plan has its share of controversy, from the land bridge to the parking plan to the bayou erosion remediation. This Hair Balls post about yesterday’s Council public session covers a lot of the concerns. I’m generally favorable, though I share a lot of the concerns about the bayou. Be that as it may – you know what’s coming, right? – there’s nothing in this story to indicate what any of the Mayoral candidates think about this. Memorial Park is a crown jewel, and this is a huge undertaking that will happen on the next Mayor’s watch. Wouldn’t it be nice to know if they approve or disapprove, and what their concerns are?

Smoking ban extended to pedestrian plazas

I’m okay with this.

Main Street Square is now a smoke-free zone following the City Council’s decision Wednesday to expand Houston’s smoking ban to pedestrian plazas, marking the latest effort from the Parker administration to curb lighting up in public places.

The changes to the smoking ordinance are twofold: it expands the ban to Houston’s three so-called “public pedestrian plazas” – streets permanently closed to car traffic but open to pedestrians; it also adds “combustible” and “plant materials” to products included in the smoking ban. City Attorney Dave Feldman introduced those changes last month alongside a proposed ban on synthetic marijuana, that will go to the council next week.

Feldman said complaints from business owners at Main Street Square about smoking and litter prompted the move to expand the ordinance.

In researching how to ban smoking at Main Street Square, the legal department realized there were two other areas in the city that qualify as public pedestrian walkways: a small area on Dunlavy north of Allen Parkway near Beth Yeshurun Cemetery and a block-long portion of the Columbia Tap Rail Trail along Walker Street between Dowling and St. Charles.

Previously, the city’s smoking ordinance contemplated only tobacco, outlawing smoking within 25 feet of a public facility, places of employment, bars and restaurants, outdoor sports arenas and stadiums, city libraries and parks.

The prohibition on smoking in parks and outside libraries is a recent development. I see this as an extension of that. There’s an argument to be made, as some Council members did, that this is an infringement on smokers’ freedom. I get that but I don’t buy it. It’s one block – keep walking, and in another 30 seconds you can light up again. As for the synthetic marijuana stuff, see Texpatriate for a primer. This is probably the last tweak to the no-smoking ordinances for the foreseeable future, at least until we know more about the health effects of e-cigarettes.

City smoking ban extended to parks and libraries

Who knew they weren’t already, right?

Houston public parks, golf courses and pools will be smoke-free zones come September, marking one of the most sweeping tobacco bans at city facilities.

Parks and Recreation Department Director Joe Turner announced the new policy at a City Council Quality of Life Committee meeting Wednesday, following an announcement by Library Director Rhea Lawson that the ban on smoking inside libraries will expand to the property outside.

The new policies will affect the more than 365 developed parks facilities, which include golf courses and pools, and 42 libraries across the city.

Both department heads said the expanded bans are driven by public health and concerns.

“It’s a welcome family-friendly environment, it’s a safer park experience and it gives us a cleaner facility,” Turner said.

The parks ban mirrors policies in at least 36 other Texas cities and seven of the largest U.S. metros.

[…]

A city ordinance already bans smoking within 25 feet of a public facility, places of employment, bars and restaurants and at outdoor sports arenas and stadiums. Those restrictions, all within the last decade, came with controversy, often drawing droves of people to testify at City Council meetings.

Wednesday’s bans came more quietly as both department heads have the ability to govern and change rules of conduct on their grounds without going through City Council.

Here’s the city’s press release on this. I joke about not having realized this, but I can attest that a lot of the people that congregate near the downtown library on Smith Street smoke. Perhaps this will change that. Regardless, I’m always in favor of less smoking.

Note, by the way, the utter lack of any controversy around this. Sure, that’s partly because this was an administrative decision, and partly because there isn’t really a constituency for smoking at parks and libraries like there was for smoking at bars and restaurants. But man, remember the fuss that all kicked up? The apocalyptic predictions? Well, eight years later Houston is a booming, nationally-recognized restaurant scene, and last I checked we still had bars and live music. In fact, the oft-cited Rudyard’s bar in Montrose is alive and well, as is The Next Door. I don’t remember the last time I heard any complaints about Houston’s smoking ban. As someone who remembers being forced by occasional circumstance to sit next to smokers on airplanes, I cannot begin to tell you how much nicer the world we live in now is. Hair Balls has more.

City reaches settlement with developer over Woodland Park damage

Good news.

Mayor Annise Parker, the City of Houston Legal Department and the Houston Parks and Recreation Department (HPARD) announced the City has recovered $300,000 to restore recent damage to Woodland Park by a private developer. Woodland Park, located at 212 Parkview, is a 19.67 acre park near White Oak Bayou in the Woodland Heights neighborhood in City Council District H. It has been a city park since 1914.

“The residents of Woodland Park were justified in their outrage over this tragic act. There is no way to be able to fully restore the vegetation and trees that grew there over so many years, however we were amenable to a settlement in this case,” said Mayor Annise Parker. “The City of Houston fought to ensure the developer would pay for the vegetation to be replanted, and hopefully it can begin to grow again without further incident. We believe this is fair and will compensate the city for the amount of work needed to restore the area.”

During the week of June 3-7, 2013, private developers constructing several townhomes on private property adjacent to the Park caused substantial damage to nearly one acre. The damage included removal of trees, vegetation, and harmful grading of soil. Although the developers promptly offered to pay the costs of restoring the Park to its original condition, there were major disagreements regarding how this should be accomplished, and what the costs would be.

The Houston Parks and Recreation Department moved promptly to determine the best approach to restore the Park. The City Legal Department partnered with HPARD to negotiate a fair settlement amount with the developers. Those joint efforts culminated with the $300,000 payment received last Friday.

“I’m pleased a compromise has been reached that creates a path towards the restoration of Woodland Park,” said Mayor Pro Tem Ed Gonzalez, District H. “The destruction that occurred in early June was devastating and I’m looking forward to joining community members in crafting a plan of action and ensuring that all terms of the settlement are followed. I’m confident that the members of the Parks and Recreation Department are the best folks to perform the work needed at Woodland Park. I’m also very grateful to the Friends of Woodland Park for their hard work over many years and stay committed to the goal of revitalizing this hidden gem of green space in our city.”

HPARD intends to work through the Houston Parks Board to restore the Park, as much as possible, to its original condition. The project will take an estimated 6 months to complete. HPARD will meet with the community representatives, Friends of Woodland Park and Council Member Gonzalez to discuss a plan of action.

See here for the background, here for the Chron story, and here for a copy of the settlement. As part of the agreement, the city will remove the red tags on the development so it can continue. All in all, seems like a reasonable outcome. I look forward to seeing the restoration work completed. Kudos to all for getting this done. Nonsequiteuse has more, including one small suggested modification to the settlement agreement, and Swamplot has more.

Full speed ahead for Parks By You

Excellent.

Houston City Council on Wednesday approved an agreement with the Houston Parks Board to tackle the ambitious trails plan voters approved in a $166 million bond issue last November.

The Bayou Greenways 2020 project fulfills a century-old vision first laid out by urban planner Arthur Comey in 1912, with a $205 million, 160-mile connected networks of citywide trails. As the name implies, the goal is to finish the work in 7 years.

For a sense of where the trails are going, check out this map.

[…]

The Houston Parks Board has committed to raising $105 million to accompany the $100 million from the bond issue (the other $66 million is for other projects), and already has raised $20.3 million. Parks board director Roksan Okan-Vick said bulldozers will start moving in a few months, starting along White Oak Bayou.

“This is a transformational project,” Okan-Vick said. “It will change the way we think about our city and change the way others view and think about our city.”

I can’t wait. Here’s more from the Mayor’s press release.

Mayor Annise Parker, the Houston Parks Board and the Houston Parks and Recreation Department (HPARD) announced the start of the $205 million Bayou Greenways 2020 initiative designed to create a 150-mile greenway system within the city limits. The project is a result of the 2012 proposition B bond election passed this past November with overwhelming voter support (68% voting margin).

“Thank you Houston! Because of your support the Bayou Greenways 2020 project will create a 150-mile system of parks and trails within the city limits on the banks of our bayous,” said Mayor Annise Parker. “This project is truly a partnership project with city, county, nonprofits, businesses and many more interested parties joining together to connect trails and parks. Bayou Greenways 2020 demonstrates our combined commitment to parkland and greenspace that has been shown repeatedly to enhance our quality of life and competitiveness here in Houston. This project truly showcases Houston’s can-do attitude.”

[…]

“This is the largest urban park project in the nation; but, the beauty of it relies on its simplicity,” said Roksan Okan-Vick, Executive Director of the Houston Parks Board. “Our mission is to secure the equitable distribution of parkland for our entire region, and these bayous have no boundaries, connecting neighbor to neighbor, and homes to businesses throughout our area. We are so grateful to be a part of this historic effort by this administration.”

The completion of Bayou Greenways 2020 fulfills a 100-year-old vision presented by urban planner Arthur Comey in 1912. His vision to unite the city with grand greenspaces along the bayous will come into being by creating 150 miles of continuous and accessible parks and trails along the major bayous within the city. Those bayous reflect Houston diversity and crisscross the entire region. They include: Brays Bayou, Buffalo Bayou, Greens Bayou, Halls Bayou, Hunting Bayou and White Oak Bayou. In addition, Clear Creek and the San Jacinto River are included in this project. Bayou Greenways 2020 will be completed in multiple phases over seven years (expected to be completed in 2020) and will positively impact every council district.

Today’s agreement also provides for transparency and accountability. All construction plans, trail alignments and design of trails and/or trail related facilities are subject to HPARD approval. All construction contracts are subject to approval by City of Houston Legal and General Services Departments. A reliable long-term maintenance agreement between the City of Houston and the Houston Parks Board is also envisioned, and will establish reliable long term funding sources for ongoing maintenance of the Bayou Greenways 2020 trail system. This agreement will be negotiated between the City of Houston and the Houston Parks Board and presented to City Council for approval no later than December 31, 2013, with implementation set by July 1, 2014. Contractors will comply with MWSBE requirements according to Chapter 15 of City Code.

This document has more details and maps of the project locations.

This is going to be awesome. No city in America has anything quite like this. If you want a sneak peek at the White Oak construction, go here to sign up for a short walking tour of a key part of it on July 20.

They name the development after whatever they bulldozed in order to build it

The title of this post is an old joke, but what happened recently at Woodland Park is not. Nonsequiteuse explains.

I was alerted to an egregious clear-cutting along Woodland Park, a City of Houston public park at the edge of the Woodland Heights, by a neighbor’s posting on our online bulletin board:

The Friends of Woodland Park, Inc. would like inform and acknowledge for the neighborhood that it appears there has been unauthorized vegetation removal within the Park. We are currently working with the Houston Parks and Recreation Department (HPARD) to determine the cause and initiate a solution to protect the Park and its inhabitants. Currently information is limited due to an ongoing investigation. We know many of you use the park on a regular basis and would be interested/concerned. So we wanted to assure the neighborhood that we are aware of the matter and are working on it. As more details become available we will report them.

The Friends of Woodland Park is an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit that was formed and is funded by the sweat, tears, and quite possibly, knowing about thorns and such, blood, to protect the second public park developed in Houston. They organize clean-ups, host movie nights, and work closely with the Parks Department to maintain this gracious public space.

I hopped in the car to see what this “unauthorized vegetation removal” entailed, thinking maybe they dug up some dewberry bushes. I must tell you that my neighbor exercised heroic restraint in writing such a measured notice.

Click over to see the pictures and see Swamplot for more. From what has been reported on the aforementioned neighborhood BB, about three-quarters of an acre was clear-cut. That’s in a park that’s a bit more than 20 acres in total size. A newly installed mulch path was destroyed. Did we mention that this is a public park? The apparent reasoning for this was to provide a better view of the bayou for the three townhomes that are being built on property that abuts the park. Yeah, this is pretty damn incredible.

At this point, the city is fully engaged, beginning with but by no means limited to CM Gonzalez’s office. Swamplot reports that the developer has taken responsibility, calling the clearcutting the result of a “miscommunication”. We’ll see about that. The local news was all over it last night – here’s KTRK for starters. Your Houston News has a press release from the Houston Parks and Recreation Department about the action they’ve taken to stop this. At this point, the word has been spread, the developer has owned up and apologized, and it’s mostly a matter of assessing the damage and figuring out who’s going to do what, and who’s going to pay for what, to fix it as best we can. I hope we can at least undo most of this.

UPDATE: The Chron has a good story on this.

“We’ll do whatever we have to do criminally or civilly to make sure that public property is protected and renewed,” City Attorney David Feldman said Wednesday.

[…]

“It’s not just removing a few native plants or trees, it’s a major intrusion,” said Houston City Councilman Ed Gonzalez, who represents the area. ” … To me, it’s just a terrible situation and we need to get to the bottom of it.”

Feldman said the city is trying to assess exactly what was destroyed and the value of the damage.

“I don’t know how many trees were alive, how many trees were dead, but obviously that’s public property,” Feldman said. “It does involve destruction of public property, which is both a criminal matter as well as a civil matter.”

The city recently took action against a hotel owner for over-trimming city trees on South Main, Feldman said.

The Parks Department reported that the cleared property included some healthy trees. Reforestation and replanting will be necessary, and erosion control and possible regrading of the site may be required, officials said. A debris pile will also need to be removed.

[Developer Bill] Workman said a large amount of bamboo and an undergrowth of vines were removed in the clearing.

He said he has met with city officials and he will comply with whatever the Parks Department requires of him. He said the townhome project will go forward.

We’ll see what the city has to say about this.

UPDATE: Hair Balls adds on.

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.

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?

Rodeo kicks in for tree replanting

Trail riders coming into Houston for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo traditionally camp overnight in Memorial Park on their way to the event. Last year they did this as many of the trees around them were dying from the drought. This year, the HSLR is giving back to help with that problem.

On Monday, [HSLR board chairman Steve] Stevens presented a $250,000 check from the rodeo to Mayor Annise Parker and Memorial Park Conservancy board chairman Jim Porter to help reforest the beloved park.

“For more than 50 years, thousands of trail riders have gathered in the park, so I thought this was a nice way to pay back,” Stevens said. “We’ve got to get it going again. The city and county are great to us. … This was the easiest thing we’ve approved this year.”

The donation is for reforestation, which will include planting thousands of trees in the park, said the conservancy’s Claire Caudill. However, before any major planting takes place, the conservancy and Houston Parks and Recreation must remove about 20,000 dead trees and create conditions that will ensure greater seedling success.

Nice. Other work that needs to be done prior to any planting includes getting rid of the various invasive species that have taken up residence in the park. The conservancy expects trees to be put in the ground beginning next November. Let’s hope the current dry conditions don’t make things worse between now and then.

Interview with Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

It’s bonds and more bonds this week, as we discuss the remaining referenda on the ballot. First up is the city of Houston bond package, which by law will be broken out into five separate propositions for your approval. Proposition B, the one having to do with parks and recreation, is easily the highest profile issue among them, but all five are important and worth your time to consider. I had the opportunity to discuss these issues with Mayor Annise Parker, and you can hear the conversation below, but before I get to that, the Mayor references several web pages in her answers, which are as follows:

Mayor’s Fiscal Responsibility page
Capital Improvement Plan Web Application
Information on the City Bond Referendum and Proposed Charter Amendments
Assessment of Facility Needs

One more thing to note before we get to the main event: As the Mayor says in her opening answer, each referendum is just about granting approval to the city to borrow money. It doesn’t mean the city will necessarily wind up borrowing the full amount, especially for the Parks By You item, since the city is essentially providing matching funds for private capital. If the private fundraisers fall short of their $100 million goal, it’s that much less that the city will borrow. With that out of the way, here’s the interview:

Mayor Parker MP3

You can still find a list of all interviews I did for this primary cycle, plus other related information, on my 2012 Harris County Primary Elections page and my 2012 Texas Primary Elections page, which I now need to update to include fall candidate information. You can also follow this blog by liking its Facebook page.

Making the case for the parks

Ed Wulfe advocates for the parks-related referendum on the ballot.

Over the past several months, multiple organizations dedicated to Houston’s Bayou Greenway Initiative and a new organization, ParksByYou, have been uniting parks and bayou enthusiasts. Their work aims to mobilize all of us to vote “yes” for Proposition B on the ballot, a parks bond referendum that will pump $166 million into our parks and bayou properties – all of it targeted at real construction and capital improvements. While $66 million will be used to make critical improvements to existing neighborhood parks all across the city, $100 million of those funds will be matched with private dollars to finally close the gaps along our bayou system and create continuous parks and trails. In less than a decade, with these bond dollars, Houston will have more than 150 miles of trails and a park system like no other in America. Our bayous are Houston’s unique natural feature and will be improved, enhanced and expanded, rather than paved and neglected as in the past. Proposition B is a way to create parks and green space for all of us to experience and enjoy with no increase in taxes.

Our bayous meander through almost every neighborhood, and by building a system of connected linear parks along their banks, we will ensure that a majority of Houstonians will have access to green space within just a few miles of work or school or home. It’s been shown that regular physical activity reduces the risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other diseases, and there is strong evidence showing that people exercise more when they have convenient access to parks and recreational opportunities. A vote for the parks bond will contribute to the overall health of Houston’s population while simultaneously enhancing our quality of life.

Parks along our bayous will inspire and energize economic development, increase property values, improve flood control and help manage water quality. The desirability of property located near parks and green space is high because people are attracted to inviting and pleasurable places to play and exercise, resulting in stronger and more active neighborhoods with appealing places for people of all ages.

Here’s the Parks By You website, if you want to learn more. As Wulfe notes, there are five city of Houston propositions on the ballot, each relating to bonds for different purposes. In addition to the parks referendum, there’s one each for public safety, “general government” which I believe has to do with the Solid Waste department, libraries, and housing. I think it’s an easy call to vote for them all, though only the parks issue has an active campaign promoting it. I’ll have an interview next week with Mayor Parker to discuss what these bonds are for and what they will do.

One more thing about the Buffalo Bayou transformation

You saw Trudi Smith’s guest post about the transformation of Buffalo Bayou, which was recently kicked into high gear. There’s a point that needs to be addressed about the project and the lovely park that’s being built up, and the Chron discussed it in a recent editorial.

How will people get there? And where will they park?

While the Rosemont Bridge and a few over/under passes on the north side help people cross Memorial, Allen Parkway is severely lacking in easy bicycle and pedestrian crossing. Crossing at Waugh or Montrose can feel pretty risky, especially during heavy traffic. And the intersection at Taft has no crosswalk at all, with joggers and bikers playing a life-size game of Frogger across the mini-highway that is Allen Parkway.

As it is now, Allen Parkway makes it difficult for Buffalo Bayou Park to become a neighborhood green space for people in Montrose and the Fourth Ward. Updates to the park will be nice, but of limited value if people cannot get to them.

Buffalo Bayou Partnership chairman Bob Phillips and Andy Icken responded in an op-ed a few days later.

The Buffalo Bayou Park Master Plan outlines very specific ways to create better and safer public access to Buffalo Bayou Park from Shepherd Street to Sabine Street. The proposed solutions that are outlined in the Master Plan will require effective use of city property and collaboration with the city of Houston and developers in the surrounding neighborhoods. Examples include new pedestrian crosswalks to allow safer access into the park and improvements to Allen Parkway to increase parking.

Our goal is to finalize our strategy now so when the construction is complete in 2015, we can welcome people who are walking, biking, using public transportation or driving.

Most of the items they specify in their piece have to do with parking, which highlights the irony of building a gorgeous bike trail that people have to access by car. I live a bit more than a mile and a half from the entry to the trail at Studemont/Montrose, but there’s no good way for me to get there by bike. Biking on Studemont from where it underpasses I-10 borders on suicidal. The only other roads to get you there coming from the north are Heights/Waugh and Durham/Shepherd. The latter is as bad as Studemont, the former is okay except for the stretch where it passes over Memorial and Allen Parkway. I might brave it myself some day, but I’d never want to have my kids ride along with me, it’s too dangerous. It’s a shame that it has to be this way, especially since the trail provides a useful entryway into downtown and thus can serve as a path for bike commuters. I wish I could say I had a good suggestion to deal with this, but I don’t. This is the way things are in Houston.

Trudi Smith: What’s going on with Buffalo Bayou

The following is from a series of guest posts that I have been presenting over the past few weeks.

Transformation of Buffalo Bayou Park, one of Houston’s most iconic green spaces, is well underway. With an historic $30 million catalyst gift from the Kinder Foundation, a strong public-private partnership has been created to include Buffalo Bayou Partnership (BBP), City of Houston led by the Houston Parks & Recreation Department and Harris County Flood Control District. BBP has been charged with leading the enhancements of the 160-acre, 2.3-mile bayou stretch from Shepherd Drive to Sabine Street.

Likened to Houston’s own Central Park, the ambitious $55 million project will:

  • Restore the bayou to a more natural and self-sustaining version of what exists today
  • Reintroduce native park landscape
  • Add amenities to enhance safety and visitor experience

After two years of design and engineering, trail work is being constructed and additional improvements are slated to begin this summer. The entire project is expected to be complete in mid-2015. Here’s the Master Plan.

Buffalo Bayou Park Phase I Begins

Steps to Crosby Outfall along Allen Parkway just west of Sabine Street

Phase I work will be executed in two stages. The first stage includes a new pedestrian bridge at Jackson Hill, a new bridge and trails providing access to the Police Memorial, and a new footbridge, stairs and earthwork at the Crosby Outfall area at the intersection of Sabine Street and Allen Parkway.

The 345-foot Jackson Hill Bridge will be the first bayou spanning bridge to be built, and it will connect via a small plaza to the existing pedestrian bridge which crosses over Memorial Drive. Similar in aesthetic to the Hobby Center Bridge, it will provide a safe and convenient route for cyclists and pedestrians to cross over Buffalo Bayou. A trail connector to the east and a footpath connector to the west will also be added.

Improvements planned at Sabine Street and the Crosby Outfall will complement the existing trail into Eleanor Tinsley Park. The new footbridge will be 53 feet long and stairs will be upgraded to resemble those at the Sabine Promenade.

Phase I construction is expected to be completed by September 2013.

Harris County Flood Control District Begins Work at the Police Memorial

In August, the Harris County Flood Control District will start its channel conveyance restoration project. Work includes restoring the conveyance capacity of the bayou by removing accumulated sediment, repairing erosion and stabilizing bank failures. The District will also conduct selective clearing to remove invasive vegetation and, ultimately, implement a tree planting plan.

The District’s work will begin on the bayou’s north bank near the Police Memorial (north of Memorial Drive) and then proceed in seven phases to Shepherd Drive. This work will continue until late 2014 and is a continuation of the successful Pilot Project the District completed in 2010.

Overall, trail use in this area should not be heavily impacted. However, trails may be temporarily closed due to construction traffic crossing the trails. During these times, the construction contractor will have flagmen on-site directing pedestrian and vehicular traffic. Canoeists and kayakers should note there will be times when the bayou will be closed for safety reasons due to the construction.

South Bank Trail Closure at Taft & Allen Parkway

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and the City of Houston continued work on the 4.6-mile Sandy Reed Memorial Trail on the south side of the bayou at Taft and Allen Parkway, extending eastward to Sabine Street. Trail users: Please note that for safety reasons the trail on the south side of Buffalo Bayou at Montrose (on the west) and Sabine (on the east) will be closed through approximately October 2012. Trail users are asked to stay on the north bank trails or detour from the south across the Rosemont Bridge.

The Water Works Cistern

In early January, the Houston Chronicle highlighted one of Buffalo Bayou Park’s most fascinating features. Below the signature lawn being developed as The Water Works performance area, north of the existing Lee and Joe Jamail Skate Park, sits an unused City of Houston water reservoir. This 100,000-square-foot area has enormous potential. While there is currently no funding to develop the “Cistern,” as it has been dubbed, Houston-based SmartGeoMetrics has volunteered to produce 3D imaging of the cavernous space. Their work will help BBP accurately document the Cistern’s current as-is condition, conceptualize ideas for developing the space, and, with luck, facilitate funding. Imaging is expected to be completed by late summer. SmartGeoMetrics’ imaging will be given to the University of Houston’s Texas Learning and Computation Center (TLC2) who will vet a web-based public ideas process to come up with creative and sustainable potential uses. Stay tuned for details on this public ideas process!

Behind the Scenes: Familiar Faces-SWA Group

Front left to right: Jenny Janis, Jiyoung Nam, Josh Lock, Peng Xu; middle left to right: Clayton Bruner, Tim Peterson, Kevin Shanley (President, SWA Group); back left to right: Jake Salzman, Scott McCready, Michael Robinson; not pictured: Xin Sui, Alaleh Rouhi

Friends of Buffalo Bayou Partnership will recall SWA Group leading the award-winning Sabine Promenade Project. SWA Group is once again collaborating with Buffalo Bayou Partnership on the design of Buffalo Bayou Park improvements. As one of the world’s top landscape architecture and planning firms, SWA has designed countless projects in Houston and around the world. Their work includes revitalization of the landscape architecture of Hermann Park and framework planning for Houston’s Brays Bayou Corridor, among others. The Buffalo Bayou Park team is led by President Kevin Shanley, who has been involved in innovative flood management projects along a majority of Houston bayous. Rounding out the skilled team are Scott McCready, lead designer, and Tim Peterson, project manager.

For additional information on the Buffalo Bayou Park Shepherd to Sabine, click here.

To read more of the July/August 2012 In the Works e-newsletter, click here.

To sign up to receive Buffalo Bayou Partnership’s monthly e-newsletters, click here.

Trudi Smith is the Director of PR and Events for the Buffalo Bayou Partnership. The Buffalo Bayou Partnership is the non-profit organization revitalizing and transforming Buffalo Bayou, Houston’s most significant natural resource.

Buffalo Bayou begins its makeover

This is going to be great.

The jogging and biking trails that wind through Buffalo Bayou Park west of downtown are about to get a bit more circuitous as a $55 million effort to transform the area into an iconic green space for Houston begins in earnest this month.

[…]

The Harris County Flood Control District will kick off $5.1 million worth of earthwork along the bayou next month, dredging silt from the channel, fixing erosion problems and pulling or planting vegetation.

“It’s a very popular area. The challenge is leaving the park open for the public to use while we have large construction equipment in there,” said Sandra Musgrove, infrastructure division director for the flood control district. “I just hope people will be patient and tolerate all the construction, because the end result will be a really nice park.”

The district generally will work westward, reaching Shepherd by December 2014. The partnership will follow, extending the landscaping, distinctive blue lighting and waterside jogging trails it built between Bagby and Sabine to Shepherd by spring 2015.

Work to replace the main hike-and-bike trail through the park already has begun, overseen by the Texas Department of Transportation.

See here for full details of the plan, and this Swamplot post from last year for more pictures. Buffalo Bayou Park is already one of this city’s great amenities. The completion of this project will make it that much better.

Re-Plant Houston

Memorial Park is about to get some needed attention.

As last year’s drought killed thousands of trees in Memorial Park, caretakers realized it was time to speed the pace of a long-planned reforestation.

On Friday, Mayor Annise Parker announced that removal of invasive species and dead trees from the 1,500-acre park’s forested areas is scheduled to begin Monday. The work is preparation for planting about $1 million worth of seedlings in the fall, she said at a news conference in the park’s picnic area.

[…]

Nancy Sullivan, executive director of the nonprofit Memorial Park Conservancy, said it was fortunate that a plan to rejuvenate the forest was written before the drought took its toll.

Completed in 2010, the plan originally called for replanting to take a decade. Now, the time frame will be shortened to a couple of years, she said.

“We’re going to turn this into an opportunity,” Sullivan said. “We’re going to create the best, the healthiest, the most vibrant (forest possible). We’re going to have a regenerating forest that will never experience this again.”

The press release on this is here. To be a part of the RE-Plant Houston and RE-Plant Memorial Park effort, visit the following websites:

To RE-Plant Memorial Park visit the Memorial Park Conservancy
To RE-Plant the Memorial Park Golf Course visit the Houston Parks Board
To RE-Plant MacGregor Park and Mason Park visit Trees for Houston
To RE-Plant Hermann Park visit the Hermann Park Conservancy

Feeding the homeless

I’m still trying to wrap my mind around this.

Mayor Annise Parker is asking the council to adopt rules that would require organizations and people who feed the homeless to register with the city, take a food safety class, prepare the food in certified kitchens, serve only at three public parks, and leave those parks as clean as when they entered them.

Parker described her vision as one in which charities can coordinate their efforts through the city registry to reduce redundancy and waste.

“We’re trying to do this in a way that we don’t waste food so that churches, for example, don’t show up on top of each other trying to feed the same group of 20 guys,” Parker said during two hours of public testimony Tuesday.

Civil rights lawyer Randall Kallinen called the proposed rules an “assault on freedom of religion, freedom of expression and freedom of speech.” The ordinance’s penalties of $50 to $2,000 could make it a crime to feed the homeless, Kallinen said.

[…]

Councilman James Rod­riguez, who represents downtown, said the rule changes would make charity more efficient and coordinated. He said downtown residents complain of persistent litter, defecation and fights that require police intervention and detract from the quality of life and make homes harder to sell.

The proposal was tagged on Wednesday, and with Council out next week it won’t come up again till the 22nd, which will hopefully allow more time for discussion of all the concerns.

The proposed ordinance does not provide a public site for serving meals to the homeless outside of downtown Houston. Although the city’s parks director would be authorized to designate more sites in the future, the proposed rules would limit feeding on public property to Tranquillity Park, Peggy’s Point Plaza Park and undeveloped park land on Chartres, north of Minute Maid Park.

“For the city to designate it to just those three parks makes it hard,” Edward Sweet Sr., bishop of Strait & Narrow Way Temple Full Gospel Church in southwest Houston, said earlier this week. “How will these homeless people get to these three parks without transportation?”

The city is willing to add more parks, said Janice Evans, a spokeswoman for Mayor Annise Parker, but first wants to see how the new rules work in the three designated parks and to gauge whether there is a desire from groups to serve meals at other locations.

The Coalition for the Homeless, which supports the proposed regulations that would institute food handling standards, require trash pickup and have organizations register with the city, expects to produce a map in coming weeks that will show that many of Houston’s estimated 13,000 homeless residents live outside of downtown.

No doubt there are plenty of homeless folks outside of downtown, and that’s a big issue. I’m fine with the cleanup requirements, and the food safety requirements are reasonable as long as they’re not too onerous, but it’s not really clear to me what problem is being solved here. This sounds like the right way to go about it:

Council members Oliver Pennington and Jack Christie said they would like to hold off on mandatory rules until after a campaign that promotes voluntary compliance with some of the proposed rules, such as clean-up of the sites where food is served.

I agree. Let’s try to deal with that in a non-intrusive way, then we can see if there’s anything left that actually requires an ordinance. Campos and Stace have more.

“When all the ships come sailing into the arbor”

Want to do something for Houston? Plant a tree.

Houston’s battle against the relentless drought, thus far characterized by felling, dismembering and mulching dead trees, entered a new phase Friday as parks officials announced plans for an Arbor Day 2012 planting of 25,000 trees in four city parks.

I’m sure all of my regular readers already know this, but just in case there are any strays here today, Arbor Day is traditionally celebrated in the US on the last Friday in April, which this year will be April 27.

“Houston loves its green,” city Parks and Recreation Department Director Joe Turner said in calling for shovel-wielding volunteers to join in the Jan. 21 plant-in. The trees, ranging from adolescents like the one planted Friday to mere seedlings, will be installed in Memorial, Hermann, Mason and MacGregor parks.

City Forester Victor Cordova said the project will focus on seedlings – about 20,000 of them – because the junior trees are more adaptable to environmental conditions. Groups or companies sponsoring the planting of more mature trees must agree to keep them watered for two years.

Did I say April? Well, as Arbor Day is a public domain holiday, you can pretty much make any day you want be Arbor Day. Tradition, schmadition. If you want to take part in this Houston holiday, see the Parks and Rec website for details.

Trouble with the trees

The drought gets more expensive for the city of Houston.

The drought is about to claim yet more of Houston’s green – this time $4.5 million in tax dollars to remove trees that have died of thirst.

Houston’s driest year on record has prompted City Hall to mandate lawn-watering restrictions, hire extra crews to fix water main breaks, ban barbecuing and smoking in city parks and call for park visitors to bring rakes with them to help municipal employees scoop up pine needles and other dead vegetation.

The drought’s length and intensity have become so acute the city has to throw unbudgeted money at it. City Council on Wednesday is scheduled to consider a request by the Parks and Recreation Department for $4.5 million to remove 15,000 dead trees from city parks and esplanades, an amount nearly 13 times what the city spends dragging away dead trees in an average year.

One presumes they have a lot more dead trees to drag away this year than they would in an average year. This is a lot of money, but then a wildfire in a city park would likely cost a whole lot more. I’ll take the ounce of prevention for $4.5 million, thanks. Hair Balls, which also couldn’t resist the Rush reference, has more.

Mayor extends burn ban in parks

From the inbox:

Mayor Parker Extends Parks Burn Ban to Include Smoking

Mayor Annise Parker today signed an executive order extending the City’s temporary burn ban to include smoking in City parks.  The smoking ban applies to lighted cigars, cigarettes, pipes or any other device used for the burning of tobacco or other plant material.

Mayor Parker last week banned the use of barbecue grills and all other outdoor burning in City parks during the ongoing drought.  With the addition of the smoking ban, the City’s policy is now consistent with Harris County’s burn ban.  Violations of the mayor’s executive order carry fines of up to $2,000 per offense.  The executive order will remain in effect until drought conditions improve.

You can see a copy of the executive order here. But look, it’s real simple. Don’t smoke in the parks, OK? I don’t know why anyone needs to be told this, but here you go anyway. Don’t smoke in the parks.

City may ban smoking in parks

Um, yeah.

Mayor Annise Parker said she is considering banning smoking in the city’s 380 parks because of the fire dangers presented by discarded cigarettes.

“This drought is a crisis situation,” Parker said.  ”I am leaning toward a ban on smoking cigarettes, pipes, cigars –  a ban on smoking in city parks.  But what I want first is Houstonians to understand why we need to do it and if at all possible to create that voluntary compliance.”

Parker has already reacted to the record drought with other measures. Last month she restricted lawn watering. Last week she issued a ban on open flames in city parks, outlawing barbecuing on thousands of acres of public land.

Parker said a recent fire at Levy Park on Bellaire Boulevard was likely caused by a lit cigarette discarded on a mulch pile.

Not to mention that massive fire in George Bush Park, which was thankfully contained fairly quickly and didn’t damage any county property. And of course the danger of an urban wildfire, too. The question is not whether we should do this, it’s why we don’t already ban smoking in the parks. Time for another update to the anti-smoking ordinance, methinks. Hair Balls has more.

The Tour de Houston

Are you looking for a bicycle race, but without all those tedious mountains and drug tests? Well then, the Tour de Houston is what you’re looking for.

The 2009 ride date will be Sunday March 22, beginning and ending downtown at McKinney @ Crawford, in Discovery Green, across from the George R. Brown Convention Center.

Route distances will be approximately 20, 40, and 70 miles.

Pre-Registration: $25 for adults and $15 for youth 12 years and under. Pre-Registration ends at 11:59 p.m. Thursday, March 19, 2009. Registrants will pay $35 on the day of the event.

Funds raised will benefit the Houston Parks and Recreation Department through the Houston Parks Board.

Register online now!

NeoHouston has more, including a better map of the routes. What more could you want, other than maybe some donuts? Happy biking!