Seeking to add park land, Houston may pay $1.2 million for a 10,000-square-foot lot on lower Westheimer, one of the first land purchases – and the most expensive yet – under a six-year-old program aimed at expanding green space.
Some City Council members are hesitant, however, questioning whether the site at Westheimer and Whitney is a good value and whether the commercial corridor in east Montrose is the best spot for a new park.
“It could be argued that it’s a lovely place for a park, and then one might argue that it would be the perfect place for another business,” said Councilman David Robinson. “I need to be convinced that its highest and best use is truly in providing green space along lower Westheimer when one thinks about the revenue that might spin off in the tax base.”
City Council will consider the item at its Wednesday meeting.
Parks and Recreation Department officials say the site, currently used as off-site parking for a restaurant, is the best option that complies with the city’s 2007 open space ordinance.
That law split Houston into 21 park sectors and levied fees on residential developers who did not set aside green space. The fees generated within a sector must be spent in the same sector within three years, and can be used only for parks.
As of last fall, the program had generated more than $11 million citywide, but no land had been purchased. Parks officials, noting that five tracts totaling 1.3 acres have been purchased in the last year, said it simply took time for some of the sectors to accumulate funds after the recession.
Two of the recently purchased tracts, as well as the proposed Westheimer site, sit in the city’s busiest park sector, the western portion of the Inner Loop between Interstate 10 and U.S. 59.
Parks Director Joe Turner said his philosophy in using the fund is to buy land, not necessarily to stretch each dollar as far as possible. Conserving green space amid the march of townhomes, he said, often means paying a premium.
“Even though it generates a lot of funding, we’re behind the curve because we’re buying after stuff is hot, so the price has already gone up,” Turner said. “That’s the way it is. Density is here and it’s not going to stop. Do we want to fill everything in? I say no.”
Turner said he was led to the site by using a system developed by the Trust for Public Lands that assesses the need for green space based on population density and the number of youths and low-income residents in an area.
The analysis produced a map showing what areas of the sector need parks, which Turner sent to city real estate staff. Of the nine options they sent back, Turner’s top choice was cheaper than the Westheimer site but already had townhomes going up when his staff went to check it out. Other options were buried in neighborhoods, inaccessible and hard to police. Another was oddly shaped; still another, in Midtown, was nearly triple the cost of the Westheimer site.
Even Mayor Annise Parker, who agreed to place the item on the City Council agenda and said the proposal would be an appropriate use of the open space fund, has her reservations about buying “an expensive park on a commercial strip.”
Turner said the commercial area does not bother him, pointing to Mandell Park on nearby Richmond Avenue, another busy corridor. Still, Turner looked again at available properties in the park sector last week, but found no viable replacement.
Councilwoman Ellen Cohen, whose District C includes the Westheimer site, supports the proposed purchase.
“In terms of this park on this space for that price, I think it’s what the fund was designed to do,” Cohen said. “The fact that we are growing so much and there is so much development going on, trying to maintain some green spaces – even if it’s only 10,000 square feet – I think is important.”
Council District C as a whole is tied for first among the 11 districts in the number of parks and is third in acreage and average park size, when multi-district Buffalo Bayou Park and Memorial Park are included.
The 77006 zip code that is home to the proposed Westheimer site, however, however, ranks 23rd among the city’s 78 zip codes in the number of parks, and near the bottom in park acreage and average park size.
Montrose civic leader Greg LeGrande, who lives in the adjacent Avondale neighborhood, praised the idea, saying his neighbors feel their lack of park access.
“We’re kind of barren in the area here,” he said. “There’s not too many parks within the actual neighborhood. You have to go quite a ways in any direction.”
LeGrande said it would have been better for the city to have made the purchase a few years ago when prices were lower, but he said the proposed price for land on Westheimer is a fair one.
Some of the concerns raised about the purchase are based on the incorrect belief that the money could be spent anywhere in the city, Councilman Stephen Costello said. Still, Costello said the price per square foot gives him pause.
“I’d much rather see us use the money elsewhere if we can, but anytime you’re inside 610 you’re obviously going to be paying a premium for land,” he said. “So, it really kind of depends on where we’re able to invest and whether that’s the right place to do it.”