Why Are Neighbors Angry That the Glenbrook Golf Course is Becoming a Botanical Garden?

Glenbrook Golf Course has seen better days, but there are plans in the works to give the old golf course a face lift, whether the people in the southeast Houston community want it or not. 

Back in January, the Houston City Council approved a deal to hand over the care of Glenbrook to the Houston Botanic Society in a lease that ceded the park to the organization for 30 years for $100, with two renewal options for 30 years each and an agreement that the city will provide the water for the gardens. 

Jeff Ross, director of Houston Botanic Garden, was the first to speak. After he was done, Mayor Annise Parker pointed out to the audience that it was obvious the plan to turn Glenbrook into a botanic garden had a lot of support. "Not to discourage anyone who wishes to speak, but I don’t know that it is necessary," she said. "Just a word to the wise.”

The council voted unanimously to give the park to Houston Botanic Garden. They also royally pissed off the people who live in the two neighborhoods that feed into the golf course. 

Glenbrook, established in 1924, is the second oldest golf course in Houston. Bought by the city years ago, in recent years the course has been allowed to grow shaggy and unkempt. "The guy contracted to take care of the course has been cutting corners and the city hasn't done anything about it," Chelsea Sallans, a resident and the community coordinator of Save Glenbrook Greenspace, explains. As the golf course went down hill people in Meadowbrook and Park Place, the two neighborhoods attached to the golf course, started using the space as a community park.

The "benign neglect" of the course has also inadvertently created a space for wildlife, local Sierra Club member Evelyn Merz says. Turtles and fish splash in the waters of the bayou while all kinds of birds — mockingbirds, cardinals, snowy egrets, great blue herons, turkey buzzards and double-crested cormorants wing their way over the bayou and into the golf course.

Part of what worries people about Houston Botanic Garden taking over is concern that the renovations might destroy the habitat that has sprung up in and around the golf course.  "It's weird to see environmentalists trying to save a golf course, but this is about saving green space. Because of gentrification and building a lot of animals have been pushed into here  and at the same time the place has been so neglected as a golf course that it's turned into a vital habitat. It's such a  great accident," Sallans says. 

The basic plans call for the gardens to fill up all 120 acres of the golf course, Sallans says. Some of the footpaths that are used by students to walk to school will be rerouted and part of the course will be paved over to create a parking lot. The gardens will be gated with admission costs that will be comparable to other botanical gardens. (This puts the cost anywhere between free and around $20.) Even at a discounted rate Sallans says many locals won't be able to afford the tickets every day.

(Glenbrook represents 43 percent of the total public parkland acreage in Sector 6 of the city, Merz says, noting that about 60 percent of the people living in this area are low to moderate income and 80 percent are Hispanic.)

Mayor Annise Parker has been planning on setting up a botanic garden in the city for years . At first Gus Wortham Golf Course (the oldest golf course in Texas) was the top candidate, but during public meetings discussing the plan in 2014 East End residents weren't entirely enthusiastic. When another organization offered to restore Gus Wortham, city officials quickly offered up Glenbrook. 

Sallans says there wasn't any public discussion about using Glenbrook. "The community wasn't given a chance to weigh in or really given any options. We're giving up something we all use and we aren't getting anything for it." 

"Moving forward with a botanic garden was very important to Mayor Parker," Parker's spokeswoman Janice Evans wrote in an email reply to our questions about the decision-making process. "There were two sites under discussion: Glenbrook Golf Course and Gus Wortham Golf Course. After much public input and discussion by City Council, it was decided that Glenbrook was the better site and that Gus Wortham should be renovated/improved." Evans also pointed out that Glenbrook doesn't currently offer free admission since people have to pay a fee to play golf there. 

Houston Botanic Garden held a meeting last week about the project, but it's still pretty unclear how the botanic gardens will take shape. "At this time, it is still in process of being finalized and as such, is not yet being released," Houston Botanic Garden spokeswoman Elizabeth Ross stated in response to our questions about the plans.
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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray