The Insider

Spotts Remover. What happens when the city lets a TIRZ redesign a public park?

Spotts Park lies in a natural bowl just northeast of Waugh and Memorial west of downtown. In times of rain the park fills with the brown backwash from Buffalo Bayou. Otherwise, it resounds in the evening with thumping basketballs under a covered, lighted pavilion, and with the crack of bats meeting softballs on a diamond, along with the shouts of mostly low-income teens having fun.

That was before the City of Houston's Parks and Recreation Department inked a groundbreaking deal with the Memorial Heights Redevelopment Authority, a.k.a. TIRZ No. 5. The nonprofit tax reinvestment zone was created to support pricey new apartment and luxury town-home developments on the high ground north of Memorial. City officials embraced an offer by the seven-member TIRZ board to put up $500,000 if the group could redesign, construct and maintain the park.

Parks and Rec director Oliver Spellman praises the arrangement as a great way to get a park upgraded while stretching his own department's budget to improve parks elsewhere in Houston. Critics contend the city has ceded public ground for an amenity redesigned to enhance the developer's gated communities while driving off low-income youth who frequent the athletic facilities late into the evening.

The redesign by Clark Condon Associates Inc. eliminated the basketball pavilion and the softball diamond in favor of a more gentry-friendly area. It is to be filled with children's playgrounds, trails, tennis courts and a small half-court basketball "practice" area. It includes construction of a perimeter park fence in the same style as those surrounding the residential developments, with two openings next to the YWCA on the northern boundary. The portion of the fence facing Memorial will be less than four feet tall.

The first pillars of the masonry and tube-steel fencing went up along Memorial last week, quickly ringing some alarm bells.

A reader e-mailed the Insider to question whether the changes at the park were aimed at increasing the value of the nearby residences. Councilwoman Annise Parker expresses concern that the fence sends a negative message to Spotts Park's former users.

"I think it's a clear visual symbol that the park is limited-access," says Parker. "The fence will look just like the one around the residential area. My concern is even if it is not officially becoming a private park, it will look like it."

Parker recalls that when City Council approved the redesign, some details got overlooked.

"They came to the parks committee last year and were talking about these wonderful improvements the TIRZ was going to do to the park," recalls Parker. "If they talked about the fence, I didn't click on it at the time."

Parker also didn't click on what she now sees as a possible social agenda behind the redesign. "I would bet my house," says the councilmember, "that among the discussions in the TIRZ meeting was, 'Well, if we remove the pavilion, we won't have these teenagers hanging out in the park.' "

Parks director Spellman defends the changes, arguing that baseball buffs have another city ball field just west of Spotts Park and that Fonde Recreation Center, off Memorial a mile or so to the east, provides excellent indoor basketball facilities. He denies any intent to discourage low-income minority youth from frequenting the park.

"Absolutely not," says the director. "The park will be open for any person to use. I mean, minority citizens use playgrounds, they use walking trails, basketball courts; many people do that. It will be open and available."

Spellman says the alliance with the TIRZ to redevelop the park was in motion long before he arrived, and all interested parties had a chance to have input. As for the fence, he sees no problem.

"The restraining wall is more an amenity for cosmetic purposes than to keep anyone out," says Spellman. "It'll help in maintaining the park. It's going to be open. We have partnerships with Y's all over the city, so it will be inviting and open and available."

Patricia Knudson Joiner, a developer consultant and former city planning department official, serves as the lone staff member for the Memorial Heights TIRZ. She contends the redesigned park will benefit everyone who frequents the Buffalo Bayou area by plugging Spotts Park into the hike-and-bike system. Knudson denies there was any intent on the TIRZ's part to monopolize the park for the upscale renters and homeowners next door.

Joiner explains the fence is intended "just to upgrade the entire streetscape of Memorial, not [as] a subconscious effort to make it look like a private park." She denies that lower-income youth are being discouraged from using the park and says they can still play half-court basketball there. She claims the Parks Department, rather than the TIRZ, decided the pavilion and softball field were expendable.

If the process of redesigning Spotts was open to the public, its closest neighbor was caught off guard. YWCA Executive Director Norma Benzon is puzzled by Spellman's reference to a partnership with her organization, since her staff was not consulted about the redesign.

"We were not even notified of the changes," says Benzon. "We were never a part of the discussion."

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