The Park at the Heart of Our City

Redesigning Hermann Park so it's not just isolated compounds for special interests

Everybody who grew up in Houston loves Hermann Park, based on a childhood memory of going to the zoo, to Miller Outdoor Theatre, to family picnics in the Shelter. Everyone comes here as a child.

In fact, if Houston had a Central Park, this would be it. All cross-sections of our population, generation after generation, meet in this park -- like nowhere else in the city. And yet, a tour through at peak times will reveal that Hermann Park is in real trouble. The zoo floods the park with cars on weekends; on weekdays, school buses bound for the Museum of Natural Science choke the access roads; the Texas Medical Center continually exerts pressure for access and parking on the southern edge of the park. And, if that weren't enough, special-interest groups (who also love the park) clamor for small pieces of it to build their gardens, memorials and various specialized precincts.

This state of affairs led the Friends of Hermann Park last summer to interview and hire a landscape architect and urban-park planner to come in and "fix it and heal it," in the words of Mayor Bob Lanier. Laurie Olin, of the Philadelphia firm Hanna and Olin, started work in August. Olin has become a specialist in troubled city parks; he recently masterminded the renaissance of Bryant Park in New York, and will complete renovations in Los Angeles' Pershing Square early in 1994.

Olin returned to Houston in mid-November to present the results of his analysis. In a series of meetings with the parks board, the city and the community, he tested his hypothyses about his understanding of the park -- the strengths, the problems and the opportunities he sees at Hermann.

Hermann Park is blessed with an excellent zoo, a popular 18-hole golf course, pleasant oases like the Japanese Garden, and an enormously popular science museum and outdoor theater. But all these good things are internalized compounds, frequently fenced off, and often charge an entrance fee. What's left -- between all these various compounds -- should be the heart of the park. But right now it's simply left over, marginalized; as Olin says, "It's free, but it's also beat to death." It is also seriously cut off from Braes Bayou by the golf course, and compromised by heavy Medical Center-bound traffic on MacGregor.

Laurie Olin seems to have approached the problems of Hermann Park like he would a chess game -- by indentifying a series of small incremental moves which, he anticipates, will open the heart of the park to better access, new opportunities for landscape design, and improved circulation and parking. To follow his train of thought through this exercise in logic is an exciting experience, whether you grew up here or not.

For starters, Olin identified a historic drainage ditch that runs west-east through the park, separating the first nine holes of the golf course from the second. If this were developed, it would offer an opportunity to provide jogging trails on the bayou, and by way of a bridge, access to the unused strip of the park along Almeda Road. Then, he reasons, why couldn't you provide parking over there for the golf course? And if the zoo proceeds with its new gate construction along MacGregor, and can work a deal for weekend parking with the Medical Center garages across the street, could the huge central lot -- which takes such a huge bite out of the heart of the park -- be reconfigured? And if a new major traffric artery could be found for Medical Center access, couldn't MacGregor be restored to a semblance of its original carriageway form?

Laurie Olin realized early on that the psyche of Hermann Park is important -- if it suffers, the city suffers.

This designer will return to Houston to present his preliminary vision for Hermann Park on December 13. I expect that many of the chess moves he has identified will inform his design for the park. For specifics of time and place for this public meeting, call the Friends of Hermann Park at 524-5876.

 
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