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 should be 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.
The park is a migratory Motel 6. Birds stop and rest and eat in the woods when flying south for the winter, says Joy Hester, president of the Audubon Society. "It's Grand Central Station," she says. "They rely on those wooded areas."
Packs of javelinas have been seen on the trails. Squirrels, rabbits and raccoons fill the woods, providing a smorgasbord for the forest's fairly reclusive bobcats and coyotes, the latter of which have been spotted on the golf course at sunset. A bobcat was recently run over.
Memorial Park doesn't have any rules, says Glenda Barrett, executive director of The Park People. Because no one planned where off-road biking trails should go, trails just appeared. Because they weren't well planned, and didn't follow the International Mountain Biking Association's guidelines, the trails caused massive erosion into the bayou. Some people want to erect poetry-inscribed tombstones honoring lost loved ones. Without a master plan, there is nothing in writing forbidding it. Caudill doesn't have a good reason to say no, other than she thinks big plaques decorated with fake flowers give the park a depressing cemetery feeling.
To determine what can and cannot happen in the park, the parks board and the conservancy needed a constitution.
The master plan is a blueprint, to guide the park's future. It says more trails are needed, and suggests general areas where trails could be. But it doesn't map out exactly where the trails will go, or what they will be made of.
"You can't have anything that big and have every tack nailed down," Hobby says. "It would be useless if it was so specific that you could quibble about what trail turned left and what trail turned right."
Caudill says the plan is conceptual, not concrete. The city didn't want the plan to be too detailed, or force the city to make promises it can't keep. "It's not strapping any of us to anything we can't get out of," Okan-Vick says. Plus, creating a detailed plan would cost more money and probably would never pass City Council because there would be too many details to fight over.
The plan offers simple suggestions, such as new, uniform park signs. Another relatively easy-to-implement recommendation is removing dump trucks from the middle of the park. Parker says that's a slap-your-forehead why-didn't-we-think-of-that-before suggestion. Beside the greenhouse, the city stores maintenance equipment for the entire northeast quadrant of Houston, which could be kept on any city-owned industrial land. "It's a terrible waste of parkland," Caudill says.
A recent survey of Houston parkgoers showed people want more trails and picnic areas, Caudill says. So the plan suggests creating a comprehensive trail system connecting the entire park. Grant money will help pay for the trails and volunteers will design and build them. A trail committee has begun meeting to determine whether the park should have soft trails, hard trails, dirt trails or crushed granite. Caudill told the committee she was going to lock them in a room and let them fight it out. "Maybe this is too much democracy," she says.
After trails, the plan suggests creating more picnic areas, which is the root of the current controversy. The picnic loop is filled with plenty of tables that aren't used because most people don't want to eat on moldy, sloping concrete slabs that are sinking into the ground. "The tables are beginning to look like falling tombstones," says Candyce Rylander, executive director of the parks board. Benches are missing. Tables are overturned. Grills are falling apart.
The clustered pine trees in the picnic area prevent people from tossing Frisbees or flying kites. The master planners' solution to the lack of space in which to play pickup softball is to remove existing softball fields.
If the city builds a sports complex elsewhere, the current fields could become a "picnic meadow," with rented picnic pavilions and possibly a pond.
Mountain bikers emerge from the trees covered in blood and dirt. Jeff Nielsen, president of the Greater Houston Off-Roads Biking Association, has broken his nose, two ribs and separated his collarbone. It's part of the sport, he says. The only woods Houston bikers have to ride in are located in Memorial Park. Otherwise, bikers have to schlepp to parks in Huntsville or Galveston.
Technically, mountain bikers were never officially allowed in the park. In the 1980s, bikers used old cross-country running trails and created new ones. Because they didn't map or plan the trails, some swept too close to the bayou or down steep hills that later caused erosion. The biking association formed to fight for the right to bike in Memorial Park. Nielsen says city officials repeatedly told him that the park is not the proper place for his sport. They're called mountain bikers, and the park doesn't have mountains. "It's not like I tried to snowboard down the street," Nielsen says.
Once bikers rode close to 15 miles of trail, Nielsen says. Now bikers are allowed on only about six miles.
The master plan would triple the bikers' pathways. "If you believe their maps," Nielsen says.
Jorge Figueroa went to the park every evening during May and June, alerting ball players that their fields may vanish. "They're gonna throw us out," Figueroa told them.
Members of the alliance don't oppose the entire plan. Eroded trails do need to be closed or repaired, says alliance member Frank Monteverdi. But he argues that erosion is beside the bayou, not beneath the ball fields.
All of the alliance members have coached and played soccer and softball in the park. And most members run leagues. They insist that they usually operate at a loss, spending any profits on tournament trophies and T-shirts. They all have day jobs. For example, the owner of one softball league is an attorney, and the president of one soccer league runs an import-export business.
Alliance members are afraid ball players will be kicked out of the park immediately. "I don't think it's a realistic fear," Parker says. The city has a shortage of ball fields, so it won't eliminate heavily used fields without first replacing them, she insists. Besides, the plan states very clearly that fields will move if and only if better fields are built.
"They tend to gloss right over that," Rondot says. "They don't even want to read that part."
Alliance members say they read that clause, they just don't believe it.
For the past 30 years alliance members have asked the city to build a sports complex. If the city would provide the land, ball players would volunteer to build, run and maintain the fields. But the city never had the money to fund the fields.
It still doesn't.
Even if the plan passes tomorrow, Parker says, nothing will change for many, many years -- if ever. The entire city park system has a master plan. About two-thirds of the plan lacks funding, Parker says.
"The city's not capable of facilitating sports complexes, much less fixing the streets," says Councilman Bert Keller. "We need to stay within the boundaries of realistic achievements."
The alliance argues that the master plan is not complete because it doesn't suggest where the city is supposed to move the fields or how it should pay for them. Councilwoman Shelley Sekula-Gibbs wants to see a plan illustrating how to implement the master plan. "It's half finished. We have to have the second part," she says.
Caudill says it isn't the conservancy's job to plan how the city will find and fund land outside the park. The conservancy cares only about what happens inside the park.
The city emphasizes that new fields will be in a comparable location. But alliance member Monteverdi points out that fields at other city parks aren't used. Location matters, he says. "Where are they going to be? Are you going to find 20 acres in Conroe, or on the other side of Clear Lake, or on the other side of Friendswood?" Vasquez asks.
Finding land for a new ballpark is part of the park board's "Park Creation, Parkland Acquisition" campaign, Rylander says. One location the board is considering is directly across the street from the park, Rondot says. On the other side of I-10 is an old factory that could be torn down. If the new fields were relocated that close to the park, the plan might be worth considering, Monteverdi says. But the fact that the city hasn't nailed down a specific spot worries alliance members.
The Parks and Recreation Department is also thinking about using land in the floodplain, or other surplus city property. "You can build a ball field or a tennis court on any piece of flat land," Caudill says. "It may be nicer with trees around it, but you just have to have flat land."
Grouping the fields would make them more efficient and easier to maintain. "Memorial Park ball field facilities are crippled," Rylander says. "They're scattered."
The alliance argues that to be fair, the golf course should be moved, too. That would free up plenty of room for Frisbee, they say. The problem is, the golf course takes up a lot more land. It's easier to find ten acres of undeveloped land than 300, Caudill says. And any hunk of golf-course-appropriate terrain in the city already has a private course on it, she says. Plus, the golf course is self-sustaining and makes money that is put into other parts of the park.
"That is a treasure, that golf course," says Councilman Mark Ellis.
Spokespeople for other groups slated to move, such as the tennis and croquet associations, say there is nothing to be upset about, because nothing definite has been proposed. Attorney Lee Hamel, a founding member of the Houston Croquet Association, believes the master planners will work with his organization and move the croquet courts to a comparable location. However, he's steadfast that the only comparable location is within the park.
The alliance refuses to take the croquet club's optimistic wait-and-see approach. If they wait, they fear that contractors will be hired, and it will be too late to stop anything.
A meeting is scheduled this week for the alliance and the parks department. "We need to torpedo this," Vasquez says.
The Gulf Coast Women's Equine Society holds tree-trimming parties in the park. Diana Hobby rides her son's polo pony across the park to the wooded bayou trails to help.
Instead of decorating pine trees with tinsel, the women take hedge clippers to trim the eye-level branches on the trail. "We don't want to get whapped in the face by a branch," says Janice Bernal, president of the association. "I have some friends who hate to get their hats knocked off."
Hobby has been horseback riding in the park since 1957. "We put our babies down in playpens under the big oak and we'd ride," she says. She and her husband rode all over the park, covering every trail. Her son, Paul, keeps two ponies at the park stables. And her grandchildren take riding lessons at the park.
The Houston Chronicle reported in the 1960s that park officials had difficulty keeping horseback riders on the bridle path and off the golf course.
"That's just bad manners," Hobby says.
In the late 1970s, every building in Central Park was covered in graffiti, lights and benches were broken, and the Great Lawn was a dustbowl. The Central Park Conservancy formed in the 1980s, commissioned a high-priced master plan and spent $300 million restoring the park. About $50 million worth of work remains, says Regina Peruggi, president of the Central Park Conservancy.
Because Central Park is a historic landmark, the conservancy couldn't make any controversial changes. It wasn't allowed to remove ball fields or bathrooms. All it could do was restore. "We're just bringing it back to what it was originally," Peruggi says.
Which is exactly what the Memorial Park Conservancy is trying to do in Houston. It just has a little more design leeway, since there isn't a historical, preserve-this-forever marker. Although the park is a historic site: The land is a memorial to World War I doughboys who trained at Camp Logan. In the 1920s, River Oaks developers Will and Mike Hogg sold the land to the city at cost. The Hoggs left a clause in the contract stating that if the land was ever used for anything other than park purposes, ownership reverted to the Hogg heirs.
According to newspaper archives, the Hogg brothers' sister, Ima Hogg, vetoed more than 100 park proposals, from a fish hatchery to a flying field. She nixed the idea of the park housing the Astrodome, the Museum of Natural History and the University of Houston.
Conservancy members talk about "carrying out Miss Ima's wishes." Exactly what her wishes were is open for interpretation. Most members of the conservancy think Hogg wanted the park to have trees and not much else. Nancy Reynolds, a member of both the conservancy and the parks board, says she doesn't agree with fellow conservancy members. She thinks the ball fields should stay in the park. Hogg approved the golf course, and that illustrates that she endorsed recreation and might not oppose the ball fields, Reynolds says.
Alliance members say that it doesn't matter what Hogg's wishes were because the city bought the land. "It was not a gift," Vasquez says.
The sky turns from black to blue. Pine trees are silhouetted against the sky. By 7 a.m. there isn't a parking space available in front of the tennis courts.
There are overdressed joggers running in pairs, listening to headphones or conducting conference calls on cell phones. Parents push baby carriages with bike wheels. Fat dogs, too tired to walk or run, sit in the middle of the path, refusing to budge.
The woods, however, are deserted -- even though it's ten degrees cooler in the forest. Birds caw, crickets chirp, cars rush along 610.
Crumpled yellow leaves make it look like autumn on the Appalachian Trail. Piles of pine bark are heaped around dead, limb-free trees attacked by pine bark beetles. There aren't any young trees. The forest is overgrown with non-native shrubs that have blown in from nearby gardens. Plants like tallow, privet, ligustrum and camphor spread quickly. By the time an old oak tree dies and opens up a patch of sunlight, the invasive plant fills it, Rondot says.
Most of the pine trees were planted 80 years ago, he says. Most pine trees live only 80 years.
Caudill wants to renovate the small, dirty, locked restroom in the picnic area. She would like to construct a runners' locker room with showers and a changing area. But that might encourage "deviant behavior," she says. The kind that got George Michael arrested in a Beverly Hills park restroom. The conservancy is considering raising money to pay a bathroom attendant to make sure no one in the shower drops the soap.
Caudill doesn't want the entire park to be as wooded as the arboretum. The conservancy's goal is not to eliminate ball fields but to remove locked, fenced-in areas of the park -- so that the public can use the park. Currently, the fields are surrounded by rusting chain-link fences. Even the croquet courts are fenced and locked. Caudill made an undercover reservation to ensure that members of the public are allowed to play on those courts. She wants people to be able to use all parts of the park without having to make a reservation or pay rental fees. Plus, it would look nicer to have less gray metal and more greenery.
A comprehensive plan for the park will also prevent problematic items like the commuter bike trail, which even bikers hate. Off-road bikers don't like it because it's too much like a road. And on-road bikers don't like it because it's a boring, straight line unlike the curvy roads in the picnic loop. After the first trail section massacred trees, the conservancy helped redesign the remaining portion. Now it will weave around trees instead of plowing them down. The yellow center stripe and the five-foot retaining walls were removed. The walls were intended to protect the trees, but in order to build them, the Department of Transportation had to cut down trees. "It's much less offensive now," Caudill says. "It disappears into the landscape."
And the DOT planted 253 young trees along the path to compensate for the old trees it killed. "In 30 years they'll look real nice," Caudill says. "I will be in a nursing home, but someone else will enjoy them."
At 5:30 a.m. Jack Walston jumps out of his yellow Hummer and starts shouting. The former Navy SEAL conducts early-morning physical fitness classes. He spends an hour yelling at people in the dark, criticizing half-assed jumping jacks. If he doesn't hear everyone in the group counting, he makes them all start back at zero. About 20 people are lying on yoga mats doing crunches. These are people who never refused to dress out for gym class.
It's 90 degrees and the sun isn't up yet. The air is thick and wet. He makes them run laps.
When asked what he thinks about the master plan, he says he didn't realize one was in the works.
"I'm sure nine-tenths of the city has no idea what's going on," he says. "I had no idea, and I'm out here every morning."
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