Cutting Class

Park trees make a last stand against HISD expansion

And Cherry and Dyer don't trust. They don't trust the Friends of HSPVA to do the right thing, and they don't trust HISD to know what it is doing about building costs. "I don't think they can build what they're planning for $30 million, and HISD will get stuck again," Cherry says. Delgado doesn't think $30 million will do it, either, pointing to what he says are HISD's cost overruns in the Westside High School construction project. HISD says there are no exact numbers available for Westside but that overruns there have not been significant.

Cherry and Dyer don't understand how the current parking problems that HSPVA has in its residential neighborhood will disappear by moving to another residential neighborhood. A document on the HSPVA Web site (www.hspva. org) says in part: "The quiet streets surrounding HSPVA are overloaded with traffic at critical times of the day -- at early morning and at dismissal. We need to study this problem as it relates to student and citizen safety and potential for injury, and take measures to improve the situation...."

Timbergrove Manor folks took their concerns to Houston City Council last Tuesday. It was an amazing show of unanimity highlighted by the moment when Councilman Robb Todd agreed with Mayor Lee Brown. Councilmembers urged Oliver Spellman Jr., the director of the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, to continue his efforts to work out a land swap with HISD and keep the 11th Street area alive as a park. After all, this is a city that falls significantly short of national standards for parks acreage. And Spellman assured them at the meeting that 11th Street "meets every criterion for a wonderful public park."

Councilman Bruce Tatro has mounted his own campaign, talking with Spellman and asking Paige if some better solution could not be reached. Residents say this isn't a trees vs. arts issue. They say they support the arts; they support the school. Just not in place of their trees.

There are alternatives available. One of them, although rooted in history, still makes sense today.

By March 1979 the Post was proposing that the school should be situated on Main Street, halfway between the Alley Theatre and Jones Hall at one end and the museum complex on the other. This still works in 1999. Students can be part of the Main Street revitalization, right in the heart of things. And God knows they won't kill any trees there.

There's also the possibility of becoming part of the Fourth Ward revitalization. Why not? Councilwoman Annise Parker asked that at last Tuesday's Council session.

These are alternatives that make sense. Sense for now and the future. What worries many Timbergrove residents is what happens 15, 20 years from now, when the school has replaced their woods and HSPVA changes its mind again and wants to be back near the arts corridor. What are they going to do with the hulking structure left behind?

Residents agree that they knew HISD owned the park land when they bought into Timbergrove Manor. Realtors were scrupulous about mentioning this.

Still, the message was also accompanied by the reassuring coda that the property had never been developed and probably never would be. The demographics of the neighborhood are such that it wouldn't qualify for a middle school or high school, resident Linda Skiles says. There are a lot of two-bedroom homes here. Families that grow larger tend to move out, she says.

Timbergrove Manor residents point out that even if HSPVA comes to the community, it won't be a neighborhood school. HSPVA is a pure magnet. You get in on talent alone. There are no set-asides for proximity. So unless, as one resident groused, "you have such a boring life that you like to go to high school plays," many don't see the benefits of the new high school.

With a newly awakened sense of urgency, residents want to retain the park, add some jogging trails, perhaps develop a butterfly center (one resident, Nancy Greig, is a botanist at the Houston Museum of Natural Science), put in a few benches. They want HISD to give deciduous trees and bushes a chance to develop by halting the mowing of undergrowth. It is one of several ironies of this whole passion play that pines do not go on forever, that in about 50 to 75 years all the existing pines will be dead -- no matter what HISD does.

Skiles wrote a letter to Paige asking why public schools spend so many years teaching "elementary school children about the environment, when in high school you teach them it's okay to tear down a forest if someone gives you enough money to do it."

In recent days there has been some movement on the part of HISD and HSPVA. One person described an early meeting with Herb Pasternak, board chairman of the Friends of HSPVA as "pretty uncompromising." But newer statements from HISD seem more equivocal.

Karpicke says he wants to stay out of the politics. He just wants a new school for his students and thinks the 11th Street site would be "magnificent," but he declares himself open to other opportunities. He is very grateful for the support of the HSPVA Friends group and calls the concept of mingling private and public funds to build a school "unique." He discounts the travel time involved and points out realistically enough that as Houston's size has changed, so have people's concepts of what constitutes "close in" and "far away." His No. 1 problem right now, he says, is "space."

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