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By Sean Pendergast
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Woodman, Whack That Tree!
Parker Estates was once one of the most intriguing green spaces near downtown and had been considered as the locale for a city park. The site of the family mansions of Colonel James Baker and other old-line Houston movers and shakers at the turn of the century, in recent years the neighborhood had become an abandoned glen full of palmettos. large oaks and the occasional sleeping transient.
And then, two weeks ago, progress came calling. Now the freshly scalped glen is a temporary graveyard for mounds of massive tree trunks bulldozed in the first phase of construction by developers who plan more than 1,000 apartments and townhouses on the land west of Bagby and immediately south of the Fourth Ward, which sits in the Midtown Redevelopment Zone.
While the trees on the city right of way along the winding streets through the property have been left largely intact, most of the spectacular live oaks in the interior areas have been leveled.
Glenda Barrett, the executive director of the nonprofit Parks People, describes the sight of the felled trees as "sickening," particularly since her group had tried for years to interest the city in buying the parcel for park land. Trees for Houston director Kathy Lord agrees that the denuded property is "tough to look at." But both laud the preservation of the trees in the rights of way, which are protected by city ordinance, and view the flattening of the privately owned green space as the necessary cost of redeveloping an area neglected for years.
"If the property was going to develop at all, we sort of knew only the periphery trees would be left," says Barrett. "We lost the opportunity to purchase it [for a park] way back two mayors ago."
The three developers working the area are Jenard Gross, Austin-based JPI and Columbus Realty Trust. Gross plans to build some 210 residential units on the seven acres of Parker Estates, while the other two are pursuing construction of 400-unit projects on the old Blaffer and Bland Cadillac properties nearby. A former city of Houston forester, Jack Hill, has been hired by both the city and JPI to supervise the preservation of trees during the construction.
"It's very complicated," Hill says of his job. "They want to develop and redo, and you've got to do everything you can to try to minimize the impact of construction."
The forester says most of the trees along the city's rights of way have been saved, although a dozen or so of the 150 adjoining the JPI property are slated for removal because of disease or hazards to traffic.
Unlike West University Place, where builders must account for every tree on a site, Hill notes that Houston does not mandate the preservation of large trees on private property, other than those located in a right of way or in building setback areas along thoroughfares.
The city hired Hill to supervise the maintenance of the streetside trees, and he then approached JPI and proposed the developer hire him to advise it on preserving greenery on the inside of the property. Now he's employed by both the city and the developer, but sees no conflict between the two jobs.
"I have so much invested in the street trees, that [the city] wanted me to be under contract with the developer to preserve the trees from both sides," he says. "If anything, it doesn't compromise the interests at all. It enhances the interests."
Susan Christian, an assistant director for the city's Parks and Recreation Department, also professes to find nothing wrong with the forester protecting the city's interests while also being paid by the developer.
"One would think that he would be able to devise a plan, and articulate and communicate that to the developer," says Christian, "because it's coordinated with the city forester."
On the other hand, what happens when the interests of the city and the developer conflict? Whose money would speak louder?
Hill says the JPI development required that many large trees be cut to make way for a four-story garage and the apartments. "Because they were such large trees," he explains, "there's not much room for them." But JPI is selling some parcels of land along the edge of its development to the Midtown Zone to provide "linear park space," Hill says.
If it makes tree lovers feel any better, the corpses of the big oaks are being ground into mulch to protect the roots of their surviving brethren.
Some of the development in the area did get out of control, Hill acknowledges, when Gross's crews tore up sidewalks and foundations on their site with large earthmovers. "When they scooped out the sidewalks," says the forester, "they broke limbs off the trees and tore a lot of roots out. And they have acknowledged that they screwed up."
Not many violators do. A parks department source tells us the enforcement of the city's tree-protection regulations is lax, at best, and few culprits are actually prosecuted.
"Every time we try to enforce it, the city attorneys sort of lead us to a dead end," says the employee. "They say, 'You don't have enough proof to file claims.' "