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.
To view a larger version of this image, click 
here.
To view a larger version of this image, click here.

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.

Lawson's letter named Tomaro Bell, a member of the civic club's board, as one of the Ardmore homeowners requesting an audience with White. At a 2005 Houston City Council meeting, Bell also spoke in opposition to the proposed Ardmore section. But in 2013, Bell didn't return calls seeking comment. Also joining the Not Returning Phone Calls Club was Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church Pastor D.Z. Cofield, whose name appeared on a 2005 petition against the Ardmore section.

Bob Conwell, one of the civic club's current co-presidents, didn't want to be interviewed for this story, either. Score another point for Parker. And unlike Ada Edwards, who represented the neighborhood on City Council during the first battle, was vocal about making sure people in the civic club were heard and was often quoted in media reports at the time, current Councilwoman Wanda Adams was mum. She couldn't be bothered to comment for this story.

Brenda Rogers, the club's other co-president, didn't give a ringing endorsement but seemed fine with the Ardmore connector as long as there was proper lighting. Some of the homeowners along Ardmore are elderly, and safety was their main concern, she said.

"Hopefully the trail won't be a negative for them. Hopefully it'll work out fine for everybody," Rogers said, adding later, "We're just hoping for the best as far as safety...since they were going to go through with it anyway, we decided we'd try and get whatever safety measures we could put in place."

Perhaps the most vocal opponent was past club president Al Lloyd, who wrote in a statement, "I am outraged that Mayor Parker wants to green light this project after several years of strong protest by our community" and "I'm deeply saddened that Mayor Parker rejects or disregards our community as not worthy of the same respect given by her predecessor."

But past president Lloyd is just that — a past president. Definitely doesn't count as much. That's maybe a half-point for the opposition.

Compare the weak cries of the naysayers to the strong cries of outspoken bicyclists, and it's no freaking contest. Bikers in Houston are an especially vocal group, and as far as they could tell, the only person standing between them and the completion of the Columbia Tap was some conspiracy-minded dude who had planted a garden on city property and was now whining that the city actually wanted to use the land.

David Dick, the head of the Houston Pedestrian-Bike Advisory Committee, bemoaned Lee's "selfish interest" in holding up the Columbia Tap and pointed out that residents who once opposed a different bike path — the Terry Hershey trail — now love it, and the same will probably happen here. It's a simple lesson, really: Like children, some citizens don't know what's best for them, and it's up to a paternal city government to take them by the hand and show them the way.

Mike Skelly, an avid bicyclist and a member of the Houston Parks Board, said the city was more than fair with Lee, given that the city didn't have to concede one flower petal since it's city land. Instead, he said, officials were willing to work with Lee.

"It's great that we live in a city where we're having discussions about accommodating both hike-and-bike trails and AIDS memorial gardens," he said. "That seems like two great things to have in our city."

He also noted that, in 2012, Houstonians overwhelmingly approved a huge public expenditure to expand parks and greenways on the bayous. People want bike trails. And it would be awesome if bike trails didn't have 1,500-foot gaps.

It would be awesome if the bicyclist-­pedestrian coordinator for the city's Public Works and Engineering Department, Dan Raine, had spoken to the Houston Press for this story. After all, he's the expert when it comes to bike trails. But Raine instead referred us to ­Public Works and Engineering Department spokesman Alvin Wright. Curiously, when we first contacted Wright for questions about the Columbia Tap connector, he told us his department has nothing to do with that and that it belongs to the Parks and Recreation Department. Of course, that department's spokeswoman, Estella Espinosa, told us Parks and Rec has nothing to do with that. When we took that back to Wright, he explained in an e-mail, "I cannot be more clear when I write, the Parks Department is the lead on this project."

Spanjian later apologized for the confusion: "[Public Works and Engineering] builds a lot of trails, but not all of them. That's why they thought it was Parks. They just spoke too soon."

So Raine, the guy who probably knows the Houston Bikeway Program better than anyone else in the city of Houston, wouldn't talk to us for a story about a bike path controversy, but instead he referred us to someone who repeatedly and incorrectly asserted that the project belonged to a different department.

Raine insisted that we "respect" the protocols of talking to a press officer (even if the press officer is clueless), a protocol that apparently didn't exist in 2009, 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 — working from the inside." Or in 2010, when he told the Chronicle that Houston was in for some "pleasant surprises" regarding bike trails. The protocol was also apparently not in effect in March 2012, when Raine, in his official capacity, commented on popular real estate blog Swamplot regarding the Heritage West ­Bikeway.

One guy who had no problem speaking (and writing) directly to the Press was state Senator Rodney Ellis. He praised Parker and Spanjian, writing that the two officials "have had many conversations with civic club leaders and stakeholders about the project and taken into account public input in order to build the trail with minimal disturbance to landscaping and maximum adherence to high safety standards."

He added, "Since its construction, the Columbia Tap has been one of Houston's most used trails. This connector will provide a consistent trail to Brays Bayou and other bikeways, providing connections to residential neighborhoods and businesses south of Texas 288, as well as a 'safe route to schools' for my young constituents attending DeBakey High School... [which is located adjacent to the path]. Thousands of people will benefit from the construction of this segment of Shared-use Path and utilize this segment of trail to safely access other destinations in the area."

It's also important to note that, prior to ­Atkinson's offer to develop the connector gratis, the city successfully applied to the Houston-Galveston Area Council for funding.

The HGAC's transportation committee oversees the disbursement of federal dollars for projects that meet stringent standards, including providing access for underserved populations. The committee had awarded the city $400,000. (According to the terms of the HGAC funding, the city would have had to contribute an additional $100,000.)

With HGAC approval, Lee believed, it was just a matter of time before his garden would be gone. In July, he launched his Web site asking for public support. It might have helped if he had created a site years earlier to let the public know that the garden was there. Now it was too little, too late.

In an essay he posted on the site, Lee wrote, "When Annise Parker became Mayor, I cried at her inauguration. The ceremony's euphoric energy made me feel inclusive; for the first time we have a gay Mayor for Houston. I also remember her acceptance speech. I hope she will do the right thing with the gardens and respect what they represent."
_____________________

Lee and Spanjian got off on the wrong foot during a civic club meeting in February, and things between them only got worse from there.

Lee believed Spanjian tried to drive a wedge between him and the rest of the South MacGregor Civic Club. But Spanjian, at Parker's behest, appears to have told Lee from the beginning that the administration wanted to preserve as much of the garden as possible.

Of course, Spanjian was quick to note to the Press that it's a "self-proclaimed AIDS memorial garden," and an illegal one at that.

Lee also believed that Spanjian was stonewalling his requests for information, such as who would construct the connector and how it was to be funded. But judging from city e-mails obtained in a public-records request, the mayor's staff didn't actually have that information in February. All that was known was that, one way or another, the damn thing was going to be built.

Lee saw these loose ends as a sign of some sort of cover-up, and he grew increasingly worried about his garden's future.

After all, the guy had put a lot of love and care into a garden that was created on untended, overgrown land that no one with the railroad or the city gave a shit about in 1986, 20 years before it became the city's property.

And after all that work, all Lee heard city officials say about his absolutely gorgeous .85-acre ode to loved ones who had passed was that it was illegal. That was its primary attribute. Clearly, Lee was a bonehead for beautifying a parcel of land abutting his backyard. It didn't matter if the drunken, hollering fratboys who used a nearby parking lot for parties dumped their trash there. And not just biodegradable trash, either, but junked TVs. It didn't matter: It wasn't his land, so he had no right to replace discarded appliances with flowers.

But his years battling White's administration apparently made Lee immediately defensive and cynical.

After Lee saw Parker and her deputy chief of staff, James Koski, inspect the area to be developed on February 13, he fired off an e-mail to Koski, asking, "When was the [city] planning on notifying the South MacGregor Civic Club about this controversial infrastructure plan for our neighborhood." He requested copies of "plans, schedules and funding source for this project [sic]."

Koski e-mailed others in Parker's office the following day, warning that Lee was "clearly getting his troops rallied to combat this, but as we know the facts are on our side."

Parker e-mailed Lee February 15, stating, "As you are aware, the citizens of Houston have just passed a bond issue to support the linking of all the trails along our bayous. In the wake of that election, we are looking at every trail in the city to determine where the gaps are. In the course of that review, we have identified the gap in the Columbia Tap Trail."

Parker was apparently jonesing to develop this portion of the trail. In a February 18 e-mail to Koski and Spanjian, she stated, "I just want it done ASAP..." (In another e-mail that same day, Parker reminded her staff that everyone needed to "respect the landscaping as possible [sic]," and another of her staff members explained in an e-mail that Parker told her that "the trail needs to respect what's there.")

When asked if the connector was a high priority, Parker's head of communications, Janice Evans, told the Press in an e-mail: "Nothing urgent about the timing on this one; it was just time and everything was ready to go."

By June, some in the mayor's office had had enough of Lee's incessant records requests and his determination to bring the project to a halt. A June 5 e-mail from Koski reads, "The City has been very fair and this is public property. There's no need to slow down regarding illegally and inappropriately placed plants or ashes."

Of course, Lee was being a bit disingenuous about the whole ashes angle. Although he often referred to human ashes sprinkled among the foliage — one e-mail he sent to a city official claimed that "many" trees in the garden have been anointed with ashes — Lee was able to give the Houston Press the name of only one person whose ashes were in the garden. He said that another set of ashes was there — he said two people had approached him years ago asking permission to release their friend's ashes there — but he didn't know the location. Nor did he know the decedent's name.

And while Lee held a formal dedication of the garden in 2004, inviting city officials, it appears that few people outside Lee's circle of friends even knew the garden existed.

Surprisingly, of the people interviewed for this story, Alan Atkinson — the developer who Lee knew just had to have an ulterior motive for constructing the connector for free — was the only person who said that Lee should be applauded, not villainized, for having created the garden in the first place.

"When you're trying to do something on public land to beautify it, that's great — we ought to applaud that; we ought to support it," he said. But, Atkinson said, when he first saw the garden around 2005, he noticed that Lee had erected a chain-link fence on the south side. The north side, already overgrown with trees and bushes, was similarly inaccessible. (Lee told the Press he put up the fence to keep out vagrants.)

"Creating essentially a one-acre private garden in his backyard and fencing it off so that the other 5 million residents in this region couldn't or wouldn't access it, I think, is wrong," Atkinson said.

He also said, "From the very beginning, Mayor Parker personally directed that we be as respectful as we could, to protect the really valuable plantings there," and "We took extraordinary care to try to protect the existing plantings."

While Lee remains suspicious about Atkinson's involvement in the project, Atkinson said that he — and the private donors he rounded up to cover costs — is in it only for the public good. Bike paths connect people; they enhance communities, he believes. Anyone riding or walking the Columbia Tap can see that, Atkinson said.

"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, and that only helps bring the city together from a social standpoint."

After Atkinson completed the portion of path through the garden, Spanjian provided this update: "We have only had to remove about 10-15 percent of the landscaping, and the few trees that we had to remove will be replaced. [Atkinson] and I spent many hours over the past few months to design a route that would take into account, and leave untouched, every tree/plant we could."

But Lee feels the destruction was greater. And he's still convinced, despite the absence of evidence, that it was personal.

"It's pretty disgusting...It just shows you how petty this mayor can actually be," he said.

Thing is, with that section behind the homes on Ardmore opened up for public access, more people than ever will probably see the garden. It will just be a smaller garden with fewer flowers. But they'll see the 18-foot pillar, which Parker made sure to spare. And they'll see the plaque at the foot of that pillar. And they'll understand that it's there to honor the memory of so many who died so young. And that will mean something.

craig.malisow@houstonpress.com

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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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