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Parks By You

Bayou Greenways project moving along

Work is underway, land is being acquired, and money is being raised.

Now, the Houston Parks Board and its public partners hope to revive some of the city’s natural treasures through Bayou Greenways 2020, a 150-mile trail system that, once complete, will wind along the bayous long seen as an interruption to Houston’s urban sprawl.

The initiative is at the heart of a bond package approved by voters last November that will provide $100 million in matching funds to double the number of trails to link existing park space and neighborhoods along the city’s many bayous.

While other bayou improvement projects in recent years have focused on public art, cafes and festival space, the Greenways initiative is about trails, native grasses and flood-resilient trees.

“This is very simple,” said [Roksan] Okan-Vick, president of the nonprofit Houston Parks Board that is leading the public-private project. “We will commit to keep it as natural as possible and meander a sensitively designed, single line of trail that connects to the neighborhoods whenever possible.”


As opportunities arise to buy grasslands or wooded lots, Okan-Vick said, up to 1,200 acres of new, small nature parks could jut from the trails.

She pointed to a city map with yellow ovals dotted over stretches of six bayous, marking the Greenways projects slated for next year. They include trails along White Oak Bayou between Antoine and Hollister, as well as connecting Brays Bayou trails between Mason Park and the University of Houston.

Another 21 red ovals highlighted areas where land must be acquired or trails built before the 2020 deadline.

The nonprofit has already acquired land along the bayous to complete 20 miles of the 80-mile trail expansion, breaking ground earlier this year on three smaller projects along Brays and White Oak bayous.

That last paragraph refers to the MKT to White Oak trail connection, which will connect two existing bike trails. The Parks Board is about 60% of the way towards raising its goal of $115 million by 2020, which will be matched by funds from the city that were approved in last year’s election. Fifty million of the funds raised by the Parks Board come from the Kinder Foundation, but they with a condition that Council agreed to last week.

The Kinder Foundation is poised to donate $50 million to the Bayou Greenways 2020 initiative to connect Houston parks and double the length of the city’s public trails, but there’s a catch. The City Council first must turn over maintenance of the park lands to a nonprofit because of concerns that the city will not adequately maintain the newly developed properties.

The council is expected to approve the agreement partnering the city with the nonprofit Houston Parks Board, which would manage the maintenance of bayou trails with public funds.

The move is, in part, intended to dispel concerns from private donors who worry whether the city will have enough revenue and political support for the proper upkeep of the signature trail system once it is completed.


Supporters of the greenways project say the agreement before the council will provide assurance to taxpayers and donors that future city leaders cannot undercut their vision by simply moving or slashing city maintenance funds.

“Parks departments have tended to bear the brunt of tough times,” said Andy Icken, Houston’s chief development officer. “This creates a dedicated fund that is more resilient.”

The legal agreement is structured differently from the Buffalo Bayou or Discovery Green projects, but the practical effects are similar.

Under the proposed arrangement, the city agrees to pay the park board up to $10 million a year for maintenance. Although the nonprofit likely will hire private companies and Harris County Flood Control to do some work, the city parks department would be the preferred contractor for the bulk of it, essentially bringing much of the funding back to city coffers.

Additionally, the agreement includes an annual 20 percent contingency fund the board can use for capital improvement projects, such as installing new lights or replacing aging trails, or for disaster recovery after flooding or hurricanes. The board would be required to present an annual report to the City Council on its plans and return any contingency money not spent within the year, Icken said.

If everything goes to plan, the city eventually will make money off the deal. An in-house analysis found that by 2020, when the trails are projected to be complete, the city would be collecting $20 million to $30 million more in property tax revenue than it is today because the improved bayous are expected to raise nearby property values faster.

Council did approve the agreement, so here we are. I’m excited about what this will mean for the city. Houston’s national reputation has improved considerably in recent years, but we’re still considered a flat and visually unappealing place, usually compared unfavorably to cities with hills and more varied terrain like Austin and San Antonio. I figure a project like this can go a long way towards dispelling the idea that there’s not much to look at in Houston beyond the skylines. Swamplot and Houston Politics have more.

Full speed ahead for Parks By You


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.

Who doesn’t like parks?

The usual suspects – cranks, malcontents, and the Harris County GOP, that’s who.

Proposition B on the Nov. 6 ballot asks you to pay for part of that plan, of course. Not with increased taxes, though, [Mayor Annise] Parker insists. The bond measure asks voters to authorize $166 million in borrowing that the city plans to pay back through existing property tax collections.

Parker has said she would consider the Proposition B projects a legacy achievement in what she hopes will mark her place in city history as “the infrastructure mayor.”

But Dave Wilson, who has formed a PAC to oppose all five city bond measures, and like-minded anti-tax activists see a price tag, not just green space and infrastructure.

They have not targeted Proposition B specifically. Instead, they say the five propositions – combined with tax hikes proposed by Houston Independent School District and Houston Community College on the same ballot to pay for borrowing to fix those campuses – amount to too deep a dive into taxpayers’ pockets by government that cannot be trusted to spend money wisely.

While the measure calls for $166 million in taxpayer spending, it actually would cost $291 million to pay back with interest, according to one city estimate.

In a resolution opposing all city bond measures, the county Republican Party states: “Some of the proposed projects, such as creating ‘an integrated system of … bicycle trails’ seems a frivolous use of tax dollars when the city says it cannot find money to test thousands of stored rape kits.”

The resolution does not acknowledge that bond money cannot be used to pay for crime lab operations and other functions.

Of course, the city has found a way to pay for the rape kit backlog. It’s even one that I’m sure no Republican will ever, ever have to contribute towards. What could be better than that?

Honestly, I don’t get the Republicans’ opposition to this. There’s no tax increase. There’s never been a better time to float bonds, with interest rates at historically low levels. The city will only borrow as much as a private fundraising effort will generate. Everyone agrees that amenities like parks and bike trails are key to attracting businesses and knowledge workers to a city. The C Club, which last I checked was populated almost entirely by Republicans, has endorsed the parks bond. Even Republicans like riding bikes. What am I missing? Yes, I can see that this is part of a larger effort to sink all of the bonds, and whatever else you think of them the HISD and HCC bonds will have tax increases accompanying them. But that lack of distinction between the bonds shows that this is all about reflexive ideology and not about any policy rationale. I can’t say I’m surprised, but it’s all very unserious.

One more thing: The story sidebar lists CM Oliver Pennington as an opponent to the parks measure. While it is true that CM Pennington voted against putting the entire bond package on the ballot, he also called himself “particularly supportive” of the parks bond. It is possible to distinguish, even if the Harris County GOP won’t do it.

Endorsement watch: For the city bonds

The Chron gives its approval to the city bond referenda.

While all eyes seem to be on the presidential election, the upcoming city bond measures on the ballot this year may have more immediate impact on Houston than any federal changes.

Broken down into five propositions, the bonds will fund much-needed repairs and construction projects throughout the city. But the bond package, which will be relatively small – $410 million, in contrast to $625 million in 2006 – represents a smart, efficient and targeted program to let the city borrow money for projects where it can do the most good without having to raise taxes.

Houston voters should give their across-the-board approval to these smart investments.

They detail each of the five propositions, about which you can learn more in my interview with Mayor Parker. They did not mention the two charter amendments that are also on the ballot. Other than some caterwauling from the usual naysayers, these issues look to be in good shape. I support them and will vote for them. Just please remember to go all the way down the ballot and vote on them yourself.

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.

Here come the city bonds

For your approval.

Houston voters will decide in November whether local governments can borrow more than $2.7 billion for schools, parks, libraries and public safety.

City Council OK’d its portion of that total Wednesday, a $410 million package of bond measures. The crowded and costly ballot during a presidential election has some questioning whether voters will balk at the price tag.

“I think the voters are going to most likely turn down all bond referendums on the November ballot,” Councilman Mike Sullivan said. “There is very little sentiment for more tax dollars to be spent right now on virtually anything. You can look at the Cruz campaign and the way that that election turned out, and there’s a message there. People are fed up. People are tired of excessive spending.”

Sure, because a statewide Republican primary runoff is exactly like a Presidential year general election in a city that voted 61% for Obama in 2008. Makes total sense to me.

The bond measures come up this year as part of a routine cycle of going to voters every five to seven years for the equivalent of pre-approval for a mortgage so the city can borrow money to fix and replace its buildings, parks, streets and drainage.

The city’s last bond package of $625 million received voter approval in 2006. This year’s proposals would pay for the city’s recently approved five-year capital improvement projects list, which includes new police and fire stations, library renovations, playgrounds installed in parks and repairs to health and sanitation department facilities. By city ordinance, about $4.8 million will be spent on civic art as part of the projects.

Price tag aside, the campaigns face a challenge in educating voters about so many propositions, said Michael Adams, professor of political science at Texas Southern University.

“There can be some ballot fatigue in terms of the number of items” voters are being asked to understand and decide on,” Adams said.

All due respect to Prof. Adams, but I’d like to see some empirical data before accepting that proposition as fact. Heck, I’m not even sure what that evidence would look like. How do you measure “ballot fatigue”? How does a fatigued voter differ from a non-fatigued voter? Seems to me that such a voter would skip voting on a referendum, not stick it out to the end in order to vote against it in a fatigued fit of pique. Show me how you can measure this, and then I’ll tell you if I buy it.

One thing I can tell you is that there’s already a campaign going on to generate support for the parks referendum, which is Proposition B. We got a call on Tuesday night – before Council officially approved the ballot item – from Parks By You asking us to support it. An email sent to a neighborhood mailing list from another recipient of a Parks By You call suggests they’re already hard at work. Will there be organized opposition to this bond, or any of the others? That’s always the question. You can see more details on the bond referenda here, and Stace has more.