By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
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By Sean Pendergast
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Last winter, bulldozers chopped down 41 trees at Memorial Park. Most people didn't have any idea why. City councilmembers didn't recall approving a plan to kill trees.
Turns out, ten years ago, the city applied for federal funding to build a commuter bike trail. But as these things often go, development was delayed -- in this case, very delayed. The Texas Department of Transportation didn't begin construction until late 2002. In February, a 30-foot-wide space of trees was cleared for the ten-foot-wide trail.
"I drove by and nearly had a wreck," says Claire Caudill, chairman of the Memorial Park Conservancy. "It's an abomination."
The paved bike path doesn't jibe with the park's newly completed $370,000 conservation master plan, which strives to return Memorial to a natural, concrete-free state. "It was exactly the wrong thing to put in the park," says Houston City Councilwoman Annise Parker.
To determine what shouldbe in the park, a master plan was commissioned two years ago by the conservancy and the Houston Parks Board.
Extensive and expensive studies documented that it's hard to find a parking spot after 5 p.m. on workdays, almost half the cars on Memorial Drive are speeding, and trails along the bayou are eroding. Parking spots were counted, soil was studied, even the grass was examined.
In the end, the plan recommends more planning.
Every aspect of the park has been discussed and debated at public and private meetings for two years. Tennis players want more courts. Golfers want to extend the driving range -- which would eliminate the tennis courts. Horseback riders want soft trails for shoeless horses. Mountain bikers want more trails and to reopen closed ones.
Basically, every sports group wants bigger, better facilities -- but no one wants to cut down trees in order to build them, says Trent Rondot, project developer for the Houston Parks Board. To create space without hiring a lumberjack, the plan suggests the city move all but four tennis courts, along with the croquet courts, baseball, softball, soccer and rugby fields to a new, state-of-the-art sports complex outside the park.
The problem is, the plan doesn't say where the fields will be moved. And the city can't promise that they will stay inside the 610 Loop. "Within the beltway certainly," says Roksan Okan-Vick, director of the Parks and Recreation Department. But this uncertainty has caused a group of ball players to panic. The master plan's supporters claim they are trying to protect the park, but soccer player Jorge Figueroa insists they will destroy it.
Determined to stop the plan, Figueroa formed a group called Citizens Against The Memorial Park Master Plan. The alliance gave councilmembers a petition opposing the plan with more than 4,000 signatures.
A draft of the master plan was presented last month before the City Council subcommittee on Neighborhood Protection and Quality of Life. This month, the subcommittee will vote on the plan. If approved, City Council will vote on it.
"It would be impossible for any plan that big and bold to be agreed on by any two people," says Diana Hobby, a member of the conservancy and wife of former lieutenant governor William P. Hobby Jr. "There are perfectly good compromises."
But alliance members say they won't compromise. Even if nice, new fields are built, the ball players refuse to leave the park. "This is not a trade," Figueroa says. Coordinators of the plan offered to meet with individual members of the alliance. They refused.
Alliance member Ralph Vasquez calls the creators of the master plan arrogant, controlling country-club liars. Removing the ball fields is a racist act, he says. He argues that many of the park's soccer players are Hispanic and the mostly white master planners didn't expect them to protest.
Caudill says alliance members had plenty of opportunity to be involved in the planning process. As a matter of fact, she says, Figueroa came and spoke at public hearings. He talked about "conserving land for the birds and the bunnies," she says. She didn't realize he opposed moving the ball fields until he spoke before City Council.
"He speaks very broken English. I never really understood what he was talking about, and neither did anyone else," she says. "Maybe public speaking isn't his thing."
She points out that Figueroa runs an amateur soccer league. He rents fields in Memorial Park from the city for $4 an hour during daylight, and double that after dark. Then he charges individual teams a $300 user fee. She says it's not a deep, personal love of the park that spurs Figueroa to fight: It's business.
"He makes money staying in the park," she says. "He doesn't want his business to go away."
Ten-foot patches of trail have dropped into the bayou, leaving steep, sharp slopes. Bikers and runners who don't watch the ground closely could drop to an immediate death and be lost forever in the murky bayou. Down the old connector trail, past Slick Rock, the trees look like they tried to uproot themselves. Water washed away the mud beneath the trunks, leaving roots entirely exposed.
Because of the erosion, it feels almost mountainous. There are tire marks from "renegade bikers" who don't obey no-bikers-allowed signs. Trails are littered with empty water bottles, shards of orange reflector lights and occasional horse manure.