Spotts Park lies in a natural bowl just northeast of Waugh and Memorial west of downtown. In times of rain the park fills with the brown backwash from Buffalo Bayou. Otherwise, it resounds in the evening with thumping basketballs under a covered, lighted pavilion, and with the crack of bats meeting softballs on a diamond, along with the shouts of mostly low-income teens having fun.
That was before the City of Houston's Parks and Recreation Department inked a groundbreaking deal with the Memorial Heights Redevelopment Authority, a.k.a. TIRZ No. 5. The nonprofit tax reinvestment zone was created to support pricey new apartment and luxury town-home developments on the high ground north of Memorial. City officials embraced an offer by the seven-member TIRZ board to put up $500,000 if the group could redesign, construct and maintain the park.
Parks and Rec director Oliver Spellman praises the arrangement as a great way to get a park upgraded while stretching his own department's budget to improve parks elsewhere in Houston. Critics contend the city has ceded public ground for an amenity redesigned to enhance the developer's gated communities while driving off low-income youth who frequent the athletic facilities late into the evening.
The redesign by Clark Condon Associates Inc. eliminated the basketball pavilion and the softball diamond in favor of a more gentry-friendly area. It is to be filled with children's playgrounds, trails, tennis courts and a small half-court basketball "practice" area. It includes construction of a perimeter park fence in the same style as those surrounding the residential developments, with two openings next to the YWCA on the northern boundary. The portion of the fence facing Memorial will be less than four feet tall.
The first pillars of the masonry and tube-steel fencing went up along Memorial last week, quickly ringing some alarm bells.
A reader e-mailed the Insider to question whether the changes at the park were aimed at increasing the value of the nearby residences. Councilwoman Annise Parker expresses concern that the fence sends a negative message to Spotts Park's former users.
"I think it's a clear visual symbol that the park is limited-access," says Parker. "The fence will look just like the one around the residential area. My concern is even if it is not officially becoming a private park, it will look like it."
Parker recalls that when City Council approved the redesign, some details got overlooked.
"They came to the parks committee last year and were talking about these wonderful improvements the TIRZ was going to do to the park," recalls Parker. "If they talked about the fence, I didn't click on it at the time."
Parker also didn't click on what she now sees as a possible social agenda behind the redesign. "I would bet my house," says the councilmember, "that among the discussions in the TIRZ meeting was, 'Well, if we remove the pavilion, we won't have these teenagers hanging out in the park.' "
Parks director Spellman defends the changes, arguing that baseball buffs have another city ball field just west of Spotts Park and that Fonde Recreation Center, off Memorial a mile or so to the east, provides excellent indoor basketball facilities. He denies any intent to discourage low-income minority youth from frequenting the park.
"Absolutely not," says the director. "The park will be open for any person to use. I mean, minority citizens use playgrounds, they use walking trails, basketball courts; many people do that. It will be open and available."
Spellman says the alliance with the TIRZ to redevelop the park was in motion long before he arrived, and all interested parties had a chance to have input. As for the fence, he sees no problem.
"The restraining wall is more an amenity for cosmetic purposes than to keep anyone out," says Spellman. "It'll help in maintaining the park. It's going to be open. We have partnerships with Y's all over the city, so it will be inviting and open and available."
Patricia Knudson Joiner, a developer consultant and former city planning department official, serves as the lone staff member for the Memorial Heights TIRZ. She contends the redesigned park will benefit everyone who frequents the Buffalo Bayou area by plugging Spotts Park into the hike-and-bike system. Knudson denies there was any intent on the TIRZ's part to monopolize the park for the upscale renters and homeowners next door.
Joiner explains the fence is intended "just to upgrade the entire streetscape of Memorial, not [as] a subconscious effort to make it look like a private park." She denies that lower-income youth are being discouraged from using the park and says they can still play half-court basketball there. She claims the Parks Department, rather than the TIRZ, decided the pavilion and softball field were expendable.
If the process of redesigning Spotts was open to the public, its closest neighbor was caught off guard. YWCA Executive Director Norma Benzon is puzzled by Spellman's reference to a partnership with her organization, since her staff was not consulted about the redesign.
"We were not even notified of the changes," says Benzon. "We were never a part of the discussion."
Benzon shares Parker's concern that the redesign, particularly the fence, is aimed at bolstering the attractiveness of the new luxury home development, perhaps not coincidentally named "The Park at Memorial Heights."
"I think it does not create an atmosphere of freedom to the public," comments Benzon. "If you have a park, it should be made accessible to everybody.I think that a park should be in the interest of all the public, whether they are upscale or low-scale. If they needed the input of the community, the YWCA should have been considered one of the key players."
A city employee familiar with the Fonde Rec Center schedule and location challenges director Spellman's argument that it is an adequate replacement for the Spotts basketball pavilion.
"For kids who went down to play at Spotts Park, it was [within] walking distance from their homes," says the source, who asked for anonymity. "But Fonde is not [within] walking distance from Waugh Drive."
Fonde has open courts available only from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m, with evenings taken up by organized adult and youth basketball leagues. "If they come play in the evenings, it's going to be late when they get home," says the source. "So that would eliminate kids coming in and playing in the evenings."
Cleola Williams, a First Ward activist, recalls how hard it was to get the city to install the Spotts Park basketball pavilion back in the late sixties. At that time no one wanted the land around the park, so it was deemed a good place to locate athletic facilities to serve the black neighborhoods north of Washington Avenue. Williams says it's clear the redesigned park will serve the well-to-do newcomers at the expense of its previous patrons.
"The aim is obvious. You've got upper-middle-class people moving in there now, and they just don't want the element of community young people to come into their neighborhood. That's all it is."
Alone, the Spotts Park redevelopment might be considered an insignificant loss of public athletic facilities. But it is only the first of what is likely to become a number of city-TIRZ board contracts to alter the face of public parks to suit developer purposes. Spellman seems unperturbed by the implications.
All the recently approved TIRZs are calling to talk about parks in their areas, Spellman says. He finds the prospects of developer-zone money attractive, since his department is "challenged with our capital funding." Spellman insists the city maintains authority in the projects. "We want to make sure everything we approve fits into the future of the neighborhood, addresses the needs of the constituent and, of course, has to be open and accessible to everyone."
But the Spotts Park redevelopment raises the basic question: Whose future and which constituents get top priority when the developer's agents foot the bill and hire the designers for "public" parks? The answer, at least in this first case, seems to be that he who pays the piper gets to call the tune.
It's Here and Hot:Lee P. Brown
's Sleepytime Stories.
Mayor Brown has never been known for his media savvy. It's gotta be depressing for Hizzoner to constantly read or hear news reports about how he's wooden and uncommunicative, or how his administration has been politically inept in recent controversies such as the airport expansion deal.
So who could blame Brown for commissioning his own version of reality, a 195-page report, The Lee P. Brown Administration, The First Year, 1998?
Beginning with Brown's inaugural address, the story of Lee includes every laudatory press release and newspaper clipping the mayor's staff could locate. Headlines herald the happiness: "Looking out: Mayor wisely paying attention to other nations," "Mayor brings government to the people," "A Storytelling Mayor," "From bookworm to Mayor that's cool" and "100 Days into the Job; steering right course for Houston."
The First Year is stuffed with upbeat articles from the Houston Chronicle and several other publications, but avoids anything that might be construed as negative. Not surprising, nothing from the Houston Press is reproduced.
The volume features a color cover displaying the downtown skyline and bears the logo of the City of Houston and the mayor's office address. While it looks like an official city document, it's actually a $15,000 bit of vanity publishing. The 1,000 copies have been printed and circulated around City Hall, where they come highly recommended as a folk remedy for insomnia.
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Mayoral Communications Director Don Payne edited the report on city time. He says taxpayers will not be billed for the printing by Gilbreath Communications, but he isn't quite sure who will pay. "We're probably going to have a private donor pay for it," explains Payne. "We just wanted to make sure it did not come out of public funds."
"It was never intended to be a campaign document," says Payne with a chuckle. "It's just around now that the campaign has started."
Either that's a happy coincidence, or Mayor Brown's folks have more political savvy than some people think.
Others have the The First Year, but make the Insider your First Ear for news tips. Call him at (713)280-2483, fax him at (713)280-2496, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.