Say what you will about the heat (and the traffic, and the rain and the skeeters and the …) but Houston, a sprawling port city born on the banks of Buffalo Bayou, has a lot going for it: a wealth of world-class cultural attractions, a vibrant food scene and more urban parkland than any of the 10 most populous cities in the United States.
There is, however, one thing that Houston lacks: a proper botanic garden.
Sure, this Texan swamp town of more than 2 million residents has notable arboretums, nature centers, horticultural facilities and public gardens of all shapes and sizes. And, as mentioned, Houston has parks — nearly 50,000 acres of land dedicated to park space. It’s also a city blessed with a ridiculous abundance of museums — museums dedicated to weather, natural science, human health, contemporary art, Czech culture … and the list goes on.
But a singular institution dedicated to the collection, conservation and display of plants? Not so much.
Leased to Houston Botanic Garden by the city, the project site spans 120 acres on the footprint of an aged golf course that's seen better days but that some local residents don't want to see go. (Rendering: West 8)
By the year 2020, however, America’s fourth largest city will be able to claim a “premier” botanic garden all its own in the form of Houston Botanic Garden (HBG). (To be clear, there are much-beloved botanic gardens at Mercer Arboretum just outside of Houston proper in unincorporated Harris County).
Dedicated to promoting “public appreciation and understanding of plants, gardens, and conservation of the natural world through education, conservation, and scientific inquiry,” HBG is an organization, complete with board of directors, that’s been kicking around for over a decade now.
In January 2015, a physical home for the HBG was at long last secured on a 120-acre parcel along Sims Bayou in southeast Houston, not far from Hobby Airport off of Interstate 45. The site, leased to HBG by the city, also happens to be the current home of Glenbrook Golf Course, a somewhat down-and-out public golf course overseen by the Houston Parks and Recreation Department. Established in 1924, the 18-hole course is the second oldest in Houston.
And, as it turns out, some folks living in the neighborhoods abutting the golf course would rather not see a stunning botanic garden designed by the same Dutch landscape architecture firm behind the redevelopment of New York City's Governors Island take its place. And it’s not because they're necessarily gaga over golf.
From golf course to botanic garden: An unique NIMBY battle
The normal not-in-my-backyard grievances play into local resistance to transforming Glenbrook Golf Course into a world-class botanic garden. For one, there is, understandably, fears of traffic congestion that come along with a tourist-luring project of such magnitude.
There are also worries over localized disruptions during the construction of the garden along with concerns that once the project is completed it will have somewhat of a detrimental High Line-y gentrification effect. That is, while pumping money into the Houston economy it will simultaneously alter the character of the area, raising rents and property values in the area surrounding Glenbrook Golf Course.
“This just isn't a good fit for our low economic area," Larry Bowles, president of the Park Place Civic Association recently explained to the Houston Chronicle. "Most of our people will be priced out of the garden once it's built."
However, above all, opponents of the HBG fear that a beloved neighborhood green space will disappear.
As the Houston Press detailed this past October, Glenbrook Golf Course’s decline has proved somewhat advantageous to those living in the adjacent Meadowbrook and Park Place neighborhoods. While the course itself is still operational, area residents have used it a community park. What’s more, many locals navigate the area via the golf course’s network of footpaths, which act as a pedestrian link between the neighborhoods. Opponents worry that the garden would severe this link.
And as Evelyn Merz, a local Sierra Club member, tells the Houston Press, the “benign neglect” of the less-than-pristine golf course has turned it into an urban wildlife sanctuary.
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.
“It's weird to see environmentalists trying to save a golf course, but this is about saving green space,” Chelsea Sallans, a member of a group called Save Glenbrook Greenspace,” explains. “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.”
It’s somewhat odd to see Houston residents rally so passionately against a botanic garden of all things. It’s not like the city has leased the land to an oil refinery or a sriracha factory. However, area residents have their reasons for wanting Glenbrook to stay as it is — a decaying golf course slowly being reclaimed by nature.
While opponents have voiced their displeasure in not having a say in the early site selection process (Gus Wortham Golf Course was also considered as a potential site), the community has been invited to voice their frustrations — and their valuable input and suggestions — as the project moves forward.
“No change happens without angst," Jeff Ross, president and CEO of Houston Botanic Garden, tells the Chronicle. "But we're very committed to working with the community and problem-solving.”
Ross adds: “We have a lease with the city of Houston, which requires us to do continuous outreach to make sure we are hearing what people are saying and somehow addressing their concerns."
Of course, not everyone has taken a NIMBYist stance.
Ann Collum, president of the Glenbrook Valley Civic Club, tells the Chronicle: “I think the garden will be a wonderful asset for our area. But whenever we have progress, there are always some against it. There have been a lot of untruths and distortions, and some people have just latched on to them."
A tranquil and very well-shaded slice of paradise
As for the Houston Botanic Garden master plan envisioned by Rotterdam-based West 8, it’s a beauty — and difficult to see why anyone would oppose it, especially considering that something will replace the golf course sooner than later.
While concerns that the garden’s construction will disrupt/displace local wildlife are valid, the finished result promises to be a landscape that embraces the natural features of the area — and the wildlife that calls it home. “The Garden will aim to enhance the site and play up its beautiful features while creating a place for learning, gathering and recreating,” reads the master plan.
Forming a natural canopy, the site’s mature trees are viewed as an asset and will stay put. And yes, a small section of the site is being paved over to build the requisite parking lot.
Writes West 8:
The Plan takes its inspiration and structure from the best qualities of the existing site, and gives forethought to the biggest environmental challenges: flooding and intense weather events. The Sims Bayou and the Bayou Meander serve as framing devices that protect and enhance the experience of the gardens and the bayou. With these water bodies as site-organizers, the Garden is divided into two main precincts: the Island and the South Gardens.
By weaving together shady pathways, a mosaic of ever-changing gardens, the bayou and other water bodies, West 8’s Master Plan for Houston Botanic Garden amplifies the potential of the site’s qualities and unites the site into a coherent, 'only-in-Houston,' garden experience.
Overall, not a single square foot of open green space will be lost in the development of the garden according to the project master plan:
The site is currently occupied by the Glenbrook Park Golf Course, a fee-based, municipal public golf course. Development of the site by Houston Botanic Garden will exchange one fee-based use for another, and will transform the 120-acre golf course into a 120-acre botanic garden. This development will not change the amount of green space in the area.
As mentioned, Houston Botanic Garden will be divided into two distinct sections. The South Gardens will function as an arrival area complete with an entrance pavilion and visitor’s center along with a seasonal farmers market and sweeping expanse of lawn. Described by West 8 as a “relaxing, day-to-day place for picnics and strolling," the so-called Events Lawn would also host concerts, film screenings and other cultural goings-on along with community gatherings.
Not too hot in H-Town: Shade, provided by trees, covered walkways and a network of ceiling fan-studded colonnades, help garden visitors beat the notorious summertime heat (and rain). (Rendering: West 8)
Accessible by a covered footbridge across Sims Bayou, the Island serves as the heart of the complex with its Victoria lily-inspired tropical conservatory, café, lecture hall, events pavilion, research facilities and, of course, a variety of outdoor gardens, “both naturalistic and cultivated.”
The buildings and collection gardens will be lifted above the flood plain and connected via a network of covered colonnades to help prevent delicate (human) flowers from wilting in Houston’s oppressive summertime heat.
Visitors approaching Houston Botanic Garden by car will proceed off of Park Place Boulevard and down a tree-lined driveway dubbed Botanic Mile. The drive winds through the park before crossing over Sims Bayou atop a striking bridge that itself would be topped with large potted trees. Flanked by woodland gardens and meant to evoke “the experience of other great scenic drives like the celebrated approach to the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina” while displaying the “amazing diversity of colorful and ornate trees that grow in Houston’s climate,” Botanic Mile will also feature a walkway for those who prefer to hoof it.
While the tree-festooned bridge leading into the garden is one of the more striking — some might say contrived — elements of West 8’s initial vision (the firm has designed numerous attention-grabbing bridges in the Netherlands), Ross admits to the Chronicle that the bridge, like much of the master plan, may be tweaked, particularly with regard to hurricane-related concerns. As the master plan itself points out, it’s meant not as a set-in-stone construction document but as a “road map” that will evolve based largely on feedback from Houston residents.
A pedestrian and bike trial would also be built adjacent to the project site, running partially alongside Sims Bayou. If all goes as planned, it would connect the garden to other trails in the area.
At the end of last year, HBG successfully met its initial fundraising goal of $5 million — the organization hopes to raise another $15 million by 2017. Ideally, construction itself would commence the following year. Per the HBG’s long-term lease with the city, the 2017 fundraising goal must be met in order for HBG to occupy the site. Fundraising will continue beyond 2017 although, as Ross explains to the Chronicle, an exact figure hasn’t been ironed out: “We're still working to define that initial phase," Ross says. "We have to figure out how much garden we need to build to create visitation and generate revenue."
On that note, it’s expected that the garden will bring a one-time economic boost to the greater Houston area to the tune of $93.4 million. Once open, tourism and operations at the garden will pump an estimated, attendance-dependent annual sum of between $19 to $24 million into the local economy.
While opponents will likely continue to rally against the dramatic transformation of Glenbrook Golf Course as the project marches on, it's difficult not to imagine spending a leisurely afternoon down on the bayou amidst such lovely-looking trappings. West 8's master plan for the Houston Botanic Garden really, truly pops. Just try not to think about the heat (and the traffic, and the rain and the skeeters ...)
Via [Houston Chronicle] via [Architect's Paper], [Houston Press]