Gulag Gardens

At Hobby Airport, the rallying cry is "Free the ferns"

Covered parking lots hardly pretend to be objects of beauty, but the one at Hobby Airport manages to accent the bland concrete with well-maintained touches of greenery. In a relative rarity for Houston, the airport's multilevel parking garage has permanent displays of lush foliage surrounding its series of stairwells. Pansies, ferns, perennials and other tropical treasures, some of them rising more than six feet, adorn the semicircular beds crowning the base of each set of stairs.

On a recent afternoon, the leafy green grabbed the attention of Ann Lucas after she exited the electronic sliding doors from the baggage claim area. As she followed friend Jan Reddich to a parked Town Car, they glanced at the array of tropical plants.

And like some other airport visitors, they were disgusted by what they saw.

Hobby's gardens may be imprisoned for two years.
Deron Neblett
Hobby's gardens may be imprisoned for two years.

"It just looks awful," Reddich says. Lucas studied the scene and compared it to a third-world battle zone. "My first thought when I saw the place was that I was in some foreign country," she says.

Understand that the plants are as attractive as ever. The setting is not.

Visitors' repulsion centers on the concentration-camp atmosphere around the gardens. City officials allowed contractors to enclose the greenery behind sections of eight-foot-high chain-link fence. And as if that weren't an adequate barrier, there's enough barbwire on top to make an Ellis Unit prison warden proud.

Nobody's going to steal these plants, and they aren't serving hard time for felonies. The only flight risk is on the runways. This is just the latest Bayou City blight brought on by -- in Houston, what else? -- construction. Officials insist the jaillike enclosures are required for safety during part of a $250 million renovation of Houston's first major airport. Some passengers have trouble accepting that explanation. There's absolutely no construction anywhere on parking levels with the off-limit stairwells.

Three levels up from the bottom floor of the parking garage, workers are installing navigational systems as part of the airport improvements. Officials insist the stair barricades and barbwire barriers are needed to keep people away. They prevent them from being hit by objects that might fall down stairwells from the fourth-level construction, says Ross Underhill, Hobby's ground maintenance supervisor.

Underhill says the fencing and barbwire are there simply because they were the choice of the contractor responsible for the barriers. As for safety concerns, the blockades extend out to stop pedestrians heading for their vehicles along what was once a primary walkway. Most visitors now detour into car traffic moving through the garage, and the crowds can be sizable. Hobby handles about nine million passengers a year. That's far fewer than the 30 million at Bush Intercontinental Airport, but roughly on par with Chicago's Midway.

Hobby manager Meg Lonero estimates that the inmate plants may be imprisoned for two years during the five-year project. During that time, Underhill has two of the airport's 50 groundskeepers tending to the gardens. A construction worker serves as a jailer of sorts, unlocking the barricade fences to let the gardeners enter with daily rations of plant food and water. None of the plants have been paroled, although a batch of begonias is the latest arrival to this big house.

"Flowers are meant to be seen and smelled and touched, but unfortunately because of the construction, we have to make sure they're not hit on the head," Underhill says. "We give them as much attention as we can."

 
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