Hermann Park or Parking?

It seems like such an easy notion. Ben Taub Hospital needs more parking. The city would like a little more leverage to get something going at the stalled Allen Parkway Village site. The hospital district has some land near Allen Parkway Village, the city has some land near Ben Taub Hospital. Let's swap.

That seems to be the thought process behind an idea that may be moving toward a hearing at a Harris County Hospital District committee meeting next month. If the trade came to pass -- and there are potholes and hurdles in its path -- it would be an archetypal political deal, with each entity getting something it needs and with bystanders wondering about hidden agendas. The city would get the vacant Jeff Davis Hospital, which sits just across the street from Allen Parkway Village, and the hospital district and the Texas Medical Center would get about ten acres right next to the Ben Taub emergency room. Ben Taub would then build a parking garage on the land.

The problem, however, is that the tract next to Ben Taub now belongs to Hermann Park, and not everybody connected with the park is eager to give up the space. Discussion of the land swap coincides with the recent announcement of a master plan for Hermann Park promoted by the private, nonprofit Friends of Hermann Park; Mary Anne Piacentini, the group's executive director, admits that she isn't keen on the trade.

"From the Friends of Hermann Park point of view, that does not help," she says. "That's not suggesting we don't want to work with the needs of the Medical Center, but ultimately the concern of the Friends of Hermann Park and the concern of the master planners we hired is to do the best thing for Hermann Park."

Piacentini admits that parking is a problem, not just for the hospital but for the park itself. That could be a wedge that supporters of the swap use not only to sway Hermann Park adherents -- who might be told the garage would be theirs to use as well -- but also to dodge a stipulation in the George H. Hermann will that his bequeathed land be used only for public recreation.

Of course, as even opponents of the swap would have to admit, the Hermann Park land next to Ben Taub is hardly a site of vast public recreation. Aside from trees, it is vacant -- save for a few picnic tables.

The land-exchange notion has barely reached committee-level discussion among the hospital district's board of managers, but attorneys for the city and the county are investigating the legality of the deal. City Attorney Ben Hall says his office has made an assessment of the city's legal options about Hermann Park land use, but he declines to reveal any recommendations he may have made. Meanwhile, Nancy Scott, chairman of the hospital district's buildings and properties committee, describes the land switch as something "we're just talking about."

If the city and the hospital district think the switch can be negotiated, Scott says, "there'll be public hearings, we'll go through all the legal channels."

"Everything is speculation right now," she adds. "I don't want the public upset, to where someone will be thinking we're doing something awful."

As to what would happen at the site of Jeff Davis Hospital, which was shut down in 1989 and has remained empty ever since, Scott says she doesn't know. "It's my assumption they'll be making park land out of it," she says, perhaps aware that the notion would make the swap more palatable to critics. But, she admits, there's no guarantee that one green space would grow from the bulldozing of another. "The day they get hold of [the site]," she says, "they can do what they want."

What is done with the Jeff Davis site could speed the resolution of the Allen Parkway Village impasse by upping the city's ante in the marathon negotiations. Lanier's most recent proposal for the 1940s housing project was to renovate 150 units, demolish the other 850 units and replace them with "one-for-one" public housing units around Houston. Lanier's plan was stalled in December when U.S. Representative Henry C. Gonzalez chaired

a hearing at the housing site and emphasized that a 1988 congressional amendment prohibited using federal money to demolish the housing project.

Negotiations are continuing, with local community activists meeting this week in Washington, D.C. with Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros.

The value of the land around the housing project could fluctuate greatly, depending on whether the nearly empty Allen Parkway Village was demolished, partly redone as a public housing-commercial development compromise or totally renovated as public housing.

One government bureaucrat familiar with the situation linked the proposed land deal to the mayor's roots as a developer. "This thing wouldn't happen like this if Bob Lanier weren't mayor. It's like, 'This sounds like a good idea, let's do it. I got a problem over here with HUD and Allen Parkway Village and we got this Hermann thing, we'll get [City Attorney] Ben Hall to look into it.'


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