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.

A walk through the halls of HSPVA is a fascinating experience. That's where the theater classes practice scenes; that's where art students gather to work on paintings. That's where cellos are propped against walls. That's because there's not enough classroom space.

Built to handle three grades, HSPVA opened the year HISD moved from a junior-high to a middle-school concept. With the abrupt switch to four grades, the school was over capacity from day one. It has 650 students and with a move hopes to go to 800. (Each year more than 1,000 students apply for 180 new places in the school.) Teachers say the school doesn't have the space to offer classes reflecting the technological development of the last two decades.

Some of the classrooms are almost stifling. Walk in a room packed with desks and students, and feel the temperature rise at least 15 degrees from the hallway. Closets have been converted to offices. Storage areas share space with desks. Theater students build props on the stage because there's little room to work elsewhere. Karpicke says one of the first things he would have done in his four years as principal was to knock out the back wall of the stage to give production crews more space. But hemmed in by nearby homes, HISD can't. Choirs meet in sections. There's no room for everyone to rehearse together.

The school, typical of those built in the '70s, has narrow hallways and no classroom windows. There's no gymnasium (HSPVA kids are excused from PE classes), and the commons area serves as a multiuse space for lunch and anything else that comes along.

Asked if parents mind this, Karpicke says no, they're just glad their kids get to go to a school like this. A school like this where they can pursue their passions in the fine arts while taking academic subjects as well. SAT scores are among the highest in the city. It's a public school that pulls kids out of the best private schools in the area. It has its detractors; some say it has a better image than actuality, but it is a great enterprise for HISD to have undertaken and to have continued to support. Paintings hang on walls and aren't destroyed. Graffiti isn't in sight. The dropout rate is almost nil. Karpicke is widely regarded as a very good principal, one with passion, creativity and a desire to make the best place possible for his kids.

But HSPVA wasn't included in the $60-million bond issue. Its problems pale in comparison to those of inner-city schools whose walls and ceilings are falling down. Or as Superintendent Rod Paige said in an August 1998 memo to Karpicke, "While I support program expansion, directing dollars needed for deficiency corrections away from those school[s] to HSPVA for program expansion will gain criticism for our district."

Less than a year later, the deal is back on the table, though. That's because HSPVA offered financial assistance and because HISD doesn't have to spend any money to acquire the 21-acre site on 11th Street, land it got from the Hogg Foundation in 1949.

Timbergrove resident Robert Delgado is a registered interior designer who works for a firm that specializes in designing education facilities. He has spent a lot of time studying what might happen on the 11th Street site. "What might" is the operative phrase here because the district says it has no plans drawn up for the school yet. How, then, did HISD arrive at the projected cost of $30 million? Spokesman Abbott says studies were done pro bono by the Ray Bailey architectural firm and the price is based on "typical square footage costs for the programming specified in HSPVA's needs assessment."

Delgado did his own work. In addition to the school and the amphitheater, he figured in a 500-car parking lot in accordance with city ordinances requiring a three-to-one parking ratio. Using Harris County Flood Control District statistics, he has placed a storm detention pond on the property, a five-foot-deep pit capable of holding four acres of water. He doesn't think all this leaves much room for the 1,800 existing trees. Not to mention the herons, hawks, owls, butterflies, squirrels and crawfish. Or the little baseball field used by neighborhood kids.

He points out that the ancillary development of cafes and shops that one might hope for with the development of a performance center won't be possible in this deed-restricted residential neighborhood.

In fact, it is the argument of Dennis Loving, one of the few Timbergrove Manor supporters of HSPVA, that the neighborhood should welcome the school. Otherwise HISD might sell the property to commercial interests, which might lead to apartments and grocery stores in the area.

Resident Lorraine Cherry spends a lot of time taking photographs of the park these days, documenting what is there. She and husband Dave Dyer have leafleted the neighborhood and launched a petition drive, which they say is running 90 percent against the HSPVA building in their woods.

Cherry says they thought they were out of trouble when the area was recently placed in the 100-year floodplain. But no, she says, HISD representatives say all they have to do is add dirt. The pines in place have a surface root system. Put too much dirt on top too quickly, and you smother them. It seems what the bulldozers don't get, the flood control efforts will.

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."

Still, he says, "we're not married to any site. We've got our ears wide open."

But the fact remains, as spokesman Abbott puts it, that 11th Street is still the designated site for the new school.

Mary Martha Lappe, the HSPVA development director who has been with the school since its inception, is probably right when she says these HSPVA students can truly appreciate the wonders of nature offered by the 11th Street park.

But if the school comes in, a lot of those trees disappear. Chances are good that others will die when the dirt is brought in to protect against flooding. The crawfish will smother as well, and the herons will move on.

So then it really doesn't matter how sensitive these kids are. When everything has been removed or choked to death and covered with asphalt and aspirations and dirt, what'll be left to look at?

Lorraine Cherry's photos of what used to be?

E-mail Margaret Downing at margaret_downing@ houstonpress.com.

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