Cutting Class

Park trees make a last stand against HISD expansion

Herbert Karpicke is a very wary man these days. The principal carefully, cautiously and finally welcomed the Houston Press to his school office last week to talk about his plan to level acres of tree-laden parkland inside Loop 610 to erect a fine-arts monument there.

Actually, the meeting's official purpose was to tour his High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, a.k.a. "the Crown Jewel of Houston Independent School District," to show the congestion and need for expansion.

But as the tour went on and Karpicke warmed to his subject, he began answering questions about the proposed move of HSPVA to 11th Street, way out there by T.C. Jester and the Heights, way away from Houston's art corridor, way out to the just-declared 100-year floodplain wooded area that its Timbergrove Manor neighbors have come to call "park" and HISD calls "mine."

Chop, chop, chop.
Karpicke already had been treated somewhat roughly months ago at a Timbergrove Manor civic association meeting, an experience that left him feeling bruised and battered. As anyone who attends a "lively" civic association meeting knows, people can get rat's-ass nasty at those things. Of course, some of the folks present say Karpicke gave as good as he got, at one point advising them that they had two years to sell their houses if they didn't like the idea of a high school moving into their neighborhood. Asked about this, he shakes his head, saying it is unbelievable how many stories have been told from that meeting. And no, no one threatened residents that things could be a lot worse if, for instance, the district put a reform school in there. (Does the district even have reform schools anymore?) Terry Abbott, the public relations chief for HISD, was along to make sure the principal made no untoward statements and the Press gathered no misinterpretations. He asserted clearly that "this is not the way HISD does business."

Whatever way HISD does business -- in this case in partnership with the fund-raising Friends of HSPVA, which offered to collect $15 million to be matched by HISD to build the school -- has caused considerable concern among occupants of the 1,234 Timbergrove Manor homes, who hope that somehow something else can be worked out.

Residents -- most of whom don't want an amphitheater taller than the 75-foot pines there, don't want a 1,500-seat performance hall with its accompanying traffic problems and don't want flooding problems exacerbated by more concrete and asphalt -- decided not to be nice and quiet.

HSPVA started in 1971 just south of downtown, housed in temporary quarters in a former synagogue on Austin Street across from San Jacinto High School. After ten years, it transferred to the present Stanford Street location, in the middle of a residential area.

In 1978 the first choice for a permanent school site was the same 11th Street woods location now under consideration. But people protested, although not for the reasons named in 1999. There was no mention of green-space needs. Houston's consciousness was still light-years away from environmental concerns.

No, the 11th Street park wasn't to be protected. It was just too far away, unsuitable for what the school and its students hoped to do. The protests were from parents who wanted the school to stay close to the cluster of cultural institutions of the arts district.

A February 22, 1979, editorial in the Houston Post argued that the school should remain near the arts corridor. It said that visiting artists would have too far to travel to get out to 11th Street, and Houston students would have too long a trip back to visit museums, theaters and concerts. "Two other schools for the arts, one in Dallas, one in Los Angeles, have found themselves handicapped by remote locations. They have not flourished as Houston's has so far."

But the district already spent $500,000 drawing up plans for the wooded site, plans which would have to be redrawn for a new location. How could it just throw away money like that? Enter, stage right, the Friends of HSPVA, who gallantly agreed to raise the half-million to pay back the district if HISD would just change its mind.

As Timbergrove Manor resident Dave Dyer discovered as he researched the subject, it was a deal that the Friends of HSPVA was to welsh on after HISD reversed itself. By April 1979 one HSPVA representative told the Post that backers of his group were committed to funding some of the expense but couldn't absorb the whole thing. Actually, only a small portion of the money was ever paid back.

By December 1981 Houston school trustees declared themselves unhappy but appropriated an additional $1.13 million to complete the school on Stanford Street. Meanwhile, the Reverend Kenneth Lawson, who led the art patrons in their fight to get the building moved, said there were never any promises made and that board members "misunderstood" the HSPVA advisory committee's statements about financial support, according to news stories of the day.

Almost overlooked in all this was the impact on students attending the district's school for the deaf, which was on this site. They were kicked out and told to wait till another school could be dedicated. That never happened either. Policies and promises changed, and the deaf students are now enrolled in a program at T.H. Rogers with nondeaf students. Which is probably better anyway.

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