Happy Trails? The Battle Over a Bike Path and the Fate of the Texas AIDS Memorial Garden

Everyone thinks bike paths are a good idea. Just maybe not in their own neighborhood.

On July 18, 2013, Michael Lee watched a guy on a bulldozer dig up the grass making up the greenbelt that wound through the expansive garden behind Lee's home in Houston's Third Ward.

After months of fighting Mayor Annise Parker's office over the development of a 277-yard-long portion of bike path behind a block of homes on Ard­more Street, near where MacGregor Way intersects Texas 288, Lee had lost. Lee, a 60-year-old softspoken architect, and his neighbors had fought this development ten years earlier, when then-Mayor Bill White announced that the city intended to convert a four-mile stretch of abandoned railroad right-of-way into a hike-and-bike path. As part of the Rails-to-Trails initiative, it was to be the latest achievement in the city's comprehensive Bikeway Program, which began in 1993.

Lee's neighbors, and community leaders, concerned about what they believed were safety issues, signed petitions, wrote letters, held meetings and successfully staved off White. For one thing, they didn't quite understand why it was necessary to have the trail extend south of Ardmore to the railroad bridge, which practically dead-ends into a massive food-distribution center for Grocers Supply. Not exactly scenic.

Michael Lee fought against the bike path connector for years.
Michael Lee fought against the bike path connector for years.
Developer Alan Atkinson said Mayor Parker was respectful of the garden from the beginning.
Craig Malisow
Developer Alan Atkinson said Mayor Parker was respectful of the garden from the beginning.

The city went ahead with the bike path anyway, just leaving out the section behind the Ardmore homes. The original plan was to have bicyclists embark from an old railroad bridge over 288 and travel in a straight shot behind the homes on Ardmore, across MacGregor and onto a bridge over Braes Bayou, through Texas Southern University and on to downtown. Today, the trail ends at BBVA Compass Stadium. Ultimately, the goal is to extend the path's north trailhead from the stadium to Discovery Green, potentially extending the dead-end Grocers Supply point to Hermann Park and the Bill Coates Bridge.

Lee shared his neighbors' safety concerns, but his opposition was also more personal: In 1986, before the city bought the land from Union Pacific Railroad, Lee, who is gay, began work on what would become the Texas AIDS Memorial Garden. He visualized a bucolic preserve dedicated to the memory of so many who had wasted away.

He planted crape myrtles, fragrant loquats, daylilies, citrus trees and tropical ginger. At the north end of the garden stood an 18-foot column with a plaque memorializing "AIDS Victims." He claimed that two people had asked for permission to sprinkle the ashes of their loved ones there. In 2004, OutSmart magazine sent a photographer to the garden's formal dedication.

Subsequently, as he and his neighbors opposed the Ardmore section of bike path because of perceived safety concerns, Lee attempted to prove that he legally owned the land where the garden stood. In a resulting lawsuit, Lee claimed that the land had been abandoned for so long that, through the doctrine of adverse possession, he was now the owner. (In 2002, Union Pacific sent Lee a letter, demanding that he remove all encroachments on its land in 30 days. Lee did not comply, and the railroad never followed up.)

Although he lost, the litigation stalled the project to the point where White threw up his hands and decided to make the bike path someone else's problem. The city went ahead with developing it, leaving out the approximately 1,500-foot section along Ardmore. This meant that bicyclists departing from the railroad bridge would have to bike on the street for three blocks before reconnecting with the path. (The path, sans the Ardmore connector, was completed in 2009 to great fanfare.)

When Parker announced in 2012 that she intended to close the gap in the bike path, known as the Columbia Tap, Lee's neighbors were decidedly less vocal. Parker dispatched the city's first sustainability director, Laura Spanjian, to meet with the neighboring civic club to let them know that this was happening whether they liked it or not.

Lee tried to rally the troops, to no avail. He flooded various city departments with open-­records requests, wanting to get to the bottom of things. He smelled a conspiracy. Why was the mayor suddenly so intent on developing a little stretch of bike path? Why would a gay mayor want to mow down an AIDS memorial garden?

In a desperate bid for public sympathy, Lee launched a Web site telling the history of the garden and outlining the facts as he saw them. But at about 7:30 a.m. on July 18, he awoke to the sound of a bulldozer. Behind the wheel was Alan Atkinson, a Houston developer who was installing the concrete path at no cost to the city.

As Lee mourned the loss of his daylilies, some bicyclists aligned with the city rejoiced at the fact that their beloved Columbia Tap would now be complete. This was an important step in the greening of Houston. They applauded Parker for finishing what White should have finished years ago.
_____________________

Parker, however, had it much easier than White.

In the years since White's administration abandoned the Ardmore section, some of the loudest opponents had died, moved or reversed their stance on the matter, or simply no longer felt like expressing their views in the media. The Reverend Bill Lawson, who rose to prominence during the civil rights movement, wrote to White in 2007 on behalf of the South MacGregor Civic Club, which opposed the portion of trail planned for Ardmore. Neither Lawson nor anyone from the nonprofit organization established in his name wanted to comment for this story.

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24 comments
rmichaell
rmichaell

Is the Mayor sending me a message? aidsmemorialgarden.com

This bike trail extending Columbia Tap to the dead-end is about 1500 feet long. The portion that goes through the AIDS Memorial garden is less than 500 feet long...the rest is a waste land of gravel, piles of debris and trash. The Mayor wanted it completed before her re-election.Guess what part the Mayor completed? Mayor Parker ordered the destruction of trees, shrubs, daylily and perennial gardens and memorial sites with ashes to pave 500 feet. I personally asked the Mayor to schedule the portion affecting the gardens to autumn when l and volunteers from Mercer Arboretum could carefully relocate important trees, memorials, shrubs and plants. She refused and instead responded with the surprise of bull-dozers arriving in July.The Mayor’s staff and Houston Police escorted the bull-dozers.

curaecivem
curaecivem

The state throws the people a bone who think they've won some tin battle, never realizing what pawns they are. Enjoy your trail, and the muggings. You deserve both.

 

mojo_peace41
mojo_peace41

Wow, all this political stuff.

I was just logging on to say that, as a suburban housewife in Spring who will probably never use this bike trail, I would like to contribute $20 towards a nice bench or plaque that celebrates the work this gentleman put into creating a beautiful space which will, ultimately, be a source of pride for Houston when everyone currently involved in the squabbling is long dead and gone.

Let me know if there's a fund or something. I think it's a wonderful testament to the people who have died of this heartbreaking disease, and I would like to thank the person who envisioned this garden. I'd like to say thanks and help, in some small way. This seems like it's been a labor of love from the beginning, and I hate that something so fundamentally wonderful as a memorial garden that everyone can share has turned into the source of such intense---if temporary, in the life of a garden---contention.

brileyjames
brileyjames

I live near Pinemont and use it to travel to work on my electric scwhinn the side of the road is for drainage not a bike path, you ever tried to ride in one during a rain storm, drivers have a sick sense of humor by driving into the water as they pass you,and honkin as the water hits totally unsafe

archWLC
archWLC

I think this article can be edited down a bit, and am I the only one found this sentence troubling?

" ... when Raine spoke to the Houston Chronicle for a blowjob of a blurb describing him as 'exactly the kind of rainmaker the cycling community needs on its side..."

captkrusty
captkrusty

Malisow certainly nailed Dan Raine's the ("rainmaker") Ped/bike coordinators usual lack of response and action by deflection. 

A few years ago I spoke to Dan in person and mentioned an e-mail inquiry I directed to him and he responded, " did I reply?   I usually don't". 

It's not so good to know that Dan's staying true to form.

BTW, Dan's being paid as public servant for what?

As for ownership rights, tax records and receipts are usually a pretty clear indicator ownership.  Apparently Lee had none, so I don't understand what the controversy was in the first place.  Thank you Mayor Parker for taking this bull by the horns and for moving Houston in a positive direction.

H_e_x
H_e_x

George Carlin said it best. People's idea of a better environment isn't actual change or anything, it's making bike paths. 

fred413001
fred413001

I'm glad to know about both the trail and the AIDS memorial. I'll stop on my bike once the trail's built and take a moment by the column to just sit and be still and remember my uncle Tom who died of AIDS in the early 90's and honor his memory. There's room for both a trail and a memorial, and the city is better off for each as they're both important to many different people. There's no reason why we have to choose between one or the other, so this fight is just kind of out of proportion to the reality of the situation.

texmex01
texmex01 topcommenter

"It's fascinating to see spandex-clad bikers from the Heights interacting with residents in the Third Ward. It's wonderful to observe, because if they were in their car, that wouldn't happen. On a bicycle, you're connected to the people; you say hi to them...there's social interaction"


Then they rob them....

tazrocks
tazrocks

Once again Mayor Porker is shoving a green scam initiative down everyone's throat. Typical Socialist strategy. Look at our Socialist-in-chief Obummer. doing the same thing

larsonvargas
larsonvargas

This article is...weird. It comes off to me like Malisow realized half-way through researching the issue that it's a non-story, but still had come out with SOMETHING after committing to write about the damn thing, so he put a bunch of focus on what a pain in the ass it was to not have anyone want to talk to him. 

Was this supposed to be a story about a heartless city and opportunistic developer desecrating an AIDS garden? Was this supposed to be a story about a narcissistic blowhard who only bothers to inform people of his AIDS garden when the forward-minded city and developer threaten to open it up to the public good? 

After reading this, I'm not entirely sure (though I'm more or less leaning towards the latter). The main question I have ultimately is "was this a story worth telling?"

gsstep
gsstep

Recently saw a story about this bike path on TV. Said gangs were robbing cyclists & taking their money & even their bikes. So if you go there beware.


westmorelandshepard
westmorelandshepard

The last paragraph best justifies this project. The garden and memory of those who died during the early days of this plague will now be accessible to the whole city, both gay and straight. With the spread of the plague into the Black community, the 3rd Ward is a good place to be reminded that hiv/AIDS is still with us. We all need to be reminded every day. This bike path going through the garden is an appropriate addition to the memorial, bringing the stream of everyday life through a memorial to those who's travel on the path of life was cut short.

Motherscratcher
Motherscratcher

It's reprehensible the lengths that our city and county officials are going through to create these paths. Utter disregard for communities and homeowners. Sleight of hand and worse being used to provide legal justification for the construction. Metro, the County, various MUD's, Harris County Flood Control District. At least they didn't try to re-title the homeowner's property like they did in Katy for the Mason Creek trail. That story is much more insidious than this one with regard to property rights. Either way, it's sad for the homeowners. All in the name of public good at the expense of the few.

captkrusty
captkrusty

@archWLC No actually, I found it totally spot on accurate. 

Try giving the "Rainmaker" a call or e-mail yourself and find out what kind of no reply you get. 

Remember the most dangerous place you can put yourself is between Dan and a news camera shooting a new trail ribbon cutting ceremony.  Especially one which he had little or nothing to do with but will gladly expound on how he made it happen.  Don't believe me?  Just ask Dan himself but not on record of course. 

Kylejack
Kylejack topcommenter

@texmex01 Just a couple knuckleheads that will be caught soon. I rode this trail for years before the recent incidents.

fred413001
fred413001

@tazrocks What are you even talking about? A majority of Houston's citizens voted in favor of expanding our hike and bike trails, so Mayor Parker is actually just doing the job that we the people mandated for her.

 For the record, calling people childish nicknames doesn't really endear sensible people to your point of view.

Kylejack
Kylejack topcommenter

@Motherscratcher It wasn't his property, it was public property that he had claimed for his project. It belongs to the public.

marcy
marcy

@Motherscratcher 

Public good at the expense of few beats good for the few at the expense of the public.

Public land being enjoyed by the public instead of the few seems like a good idea to me.

Motherscratcher
Motherscratcher

The backslapping and attaboys that go with the paving over beautiful natural paths with 10ft wide asphalt mini-freeways is disgusting. Problem is, it's federally funded...and...if you can link it to a Metro park&ride you can get some of that nice Metro money, too. When they degrade, who's going to repair them? Where is that money going to come from. When the funding dries up, we will have a county and city that is responsible for maintaining hundreds of miles of what are essentially small roads that are dangerous to travel on unless maintained properly. Once paved, there is an expectaion that they will be maintained to provide reasonably safe passage.

rmichaell
rmichaell

@Kylejack @Motherscratcher  If you want the history of the ownership of property please visit aidsmemorialgarden.com,  do not believe all of the propaganda promoted by this Mayor--she has only one agenda--get re-elected.

Motherscratcher
Motherscratcher

Ahhh...the "needs" of the collective. If you had property taken for this purpose you might have a different perspective. I am not assering that Mr. Lee had his property "taken". I, however, have experienced it.                     

There are real infrastructure issues that bike paths will never solve. Couple that with the seemingly insatiable drive to connect paths in every county precinct and every commissioner putting each of his names on every sign in the county and we have a Quixotic quest to pave every naturally existing path for what? If you respond to the question, please be specific.

 
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