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The Greening of Houston: Q&A with Park Visionary Guy Hagstette

Guy Hagstette. Photo credit: Karen Sachar, courtesy of the Kinder Foundation.

HOUSTON – (Realty News Report) – Sometimes thought of as a concrete jumble, central Houston is getting greener. From the new offerings such as Discovery Green and Buffalo Bayou, to plans for a more expansive Memorial Park – to say nothing of the revitalized Hermann Park – Houstonians are benefitting from efforts to make the city more beautiful – and pedestrian friendly. One of the movers in this is Guy Hagstette, a registered architect and urban planner who directs the Kinder Foundation’s park and civic projects. As a consultant on Buffalo Bayou Park for the Buffalo Bayou Partnership and an advisor to the Houston Parks Board on Bayou Greenways, Hagstette has helped the city blossom. The founding president and park director of Discovery Green who oversaw its development, he previously served as special assistant for urban design to Mayor Bill White and was director of planning and development for Central Houston, Inc. To find out why Houstonians are seeing more and more green spaces and where the drive for parks is headed, we Realty News Report spent some time with Hagstette.

Realty News Report: Why are parks now important for Houston?

Guy Hagstette: Recent studies have shown that Americans need to get outside and exercise more to be healthy. For many Houstonians, parks are their only option, and for others, our growing network of hike-and-bike trails offer a great way to exercise and have fun. Houston is also competing with cities around the globe for the best and brightest. If we want to continue to grow and thrive, we must be a city where people choose to live, and for people who can live anywhere, great parks are a very important aspect of a city’s quality of life.

Realty News Report: Discovery Green in downtown has been wildly popular and it’s now surrounded with new development: Finger’s One Park Place residential tower, the Hess office tower and a 1,000-room Marriott Marquis. What made this park work so well?

Guy Hagstette: There are a lot of components to that success. First, there was a recognition from the start that the park’s location and functions were unique, so it would be difficult for it to fit within a larger parks department, and governance models were adopted to protect the public’s interest while also taking advantage of these unique conditions. Second, parks require adequate funding, especially in urban areas. Major up-front commitments from generous philanthropists and a long-term funding strategy for maintenance and operations that did not require any resources from our overburdened parks department were identified at the beginning. Third, we asked the public what they wanted to see in a park and then delivered on those hopes and dreams while creating a place that people could enjoy every day and not just for special events. Finally, it requires plain old hard work and commitment day in and day out by the incredible Discovery Green Conservancy team.

Realty News Report: The Buffalo Bayou park development has also been hailed as an international recognized success. Can you tell us about the creation of that park?

Guy Hagstette: The interesting thing about Buffalo Bayou Park is it is the realization of a century-old vision for parks along our bayous, and the land for this park was purchased 100 years ago, using park bond funds approved by voters in 1912. Lack of resources, floods and a shift in civic priorities caused the vision to die after World War II. Buffalo Bayou Partnership (BBP) worked to resurrect that vision as part of its Buffalo Bayou & Beyond plan in 2002, and the catalyst gift from the Kinder Foundation provided the means to turn that plan into reality. The lessons are one, this work can take time, patience and hard work over as many as 100 years and two, we have to be willing to dedicate real funding to our parks.

Realty News Report: Although occasional floods were anticipated, Hurricane Harvey was far beyond a typical event. Has Buffalo Bayou Park (BBP) recovered from that?

Guy Hagstette: Just about. BBP has done a great job of restoring about 95% of the park. All that is left is work by the Harris County Flood Control District as called for in the park’s governing agreement. They are pursuing federal funds to pay for erosion control and silt removal work along the immediate channel edge in a half dozen locations, and it will simply take time for those federal funds to make it to Houston so that work can be done. Looking more broadly, Harvey caused flooding on every one of the Bayou Greenway trails that the Houston Parks Board maintains throughout the city, leaving loads of silt and debris in its wake. They have recovered as well, but it reminds us all that funding for park maintenance is critically important.

Realty News Report: TxDOT is changing the route of the Gulf Freeway through downtown. This will allow the removal of the Pierce Elevated, the big barrier between downtown and Midtown. What should happen to this urban land that is now occupied by the Pierce Elevated?

Guy Hagstette: The North Houston Highway Improvement Project represents a once-in-a-century chance to literally remake our central city, not just along the Pierce Elevated but around downtown and in areas to the north. Central Houston has worked for nearly a decade with TxDOT on this potential while a community coalition is working to reduce the project’s impacts on adjacent communities. The “Green Loop” around downtown and a greenway along Little White Oak Bayou to Acres Homes being proposed by the Houston Parks Board are great examples. The Pierce Skypark – an elevated green space on the existing freeway structure with compatible urban uses at street level – would be an exciting part of that Loop that is being explored right now.

Realty News Report: The freeway re-routing plan also calls for depressed, below-grade freeways on the east side of the convention center. Please comment on the opportunity to develop a park over the depressed freeway, similar to popular Klyde Warren Park in Dallas.

Guy Hagstette: There is clearly an opportunity to replicate Dallas’ success — only at six times the scale and as part of the even bigger Green Loop. With three sports venues and the George R. Brown Convention Center nearby, the park can be a neighborhood park for EaDo, a great introduction for visitors to Houston and its bayou trails system, and a sorely-needed venue for the city-wide celebrations that are outgrowing Discovery Green and Eleanor Tinsley Park.

Realty News Report: There is a massive plan underway for the redevelopment of Memorial Park, including a land bridge over Memorial Drive. What’s your analysis of this plan?

Guy Hagstette: Like Buffalo Bayou Park, Memorial Park represents a century-old vision that lost steam in the mid-twentieth century. It is one of the largest urban parks in the country, and we are finally in a position to realize its potential in a manner that preserves its valuable ecological assets. The Master Plan is incredibly ambitious, and its initial ten-year plan – made possible by a gift from the Foundation, a commitment from the Uptown Development Authority and additional fundraising by Memorial Park Conservancy – provides the resources to take a huge leap forward. Ten years from now, Houstonians will be able to get to and around the park much more easily to experience the land bridge, restored prairie ecosystems, Eastern Glades, Memorial Groves, new ballfields and a timing track for runners.

Realty News Report: It seems like Houston has made tremendous strides over the last 10 or 15 years in advancing the need for parks and green space. What’s been driving this change?

Guy Hagstette: More people now understand that we must compete globally if we are to continue to thrive, and parks have assumed a bigger and bigger role in every city’s quality of life. Here in Houston, we realized after years when little attention was paid to green space, that Houstonians want great parks and will use them. The challenge was identifying the funding for both up-front capital improvements and long-term maintenance, which to-date has been addressed through generous philanthropy and creative solutions to maintenance and operations. As we work to extend great parks into more areas of the city, parks funding on a city-wide scale will be an important challenge. Through initiatives like Bayou Greenways 2020, we are now spreading this change to neighborhoods throughout the city. That project alone will create linear parks along all the city’s major bayous and connect 150 miles of hike-and-bike trails. There are also the SPARK park projects, which through philanthropic, city and school district funding, are adding 25 new parks in park-poor areas of the city.

Realty News Report: Houston is continuing to grow and may surpass Chicago in population someday. What’s the future look like for Houston?

Guy Hagstette: The question is not whether we will grow but how we will grow. Statistics like population size only tell part of the story. Yes, we want Houston to grow, but we also want Houstonians to be glad they live here and urge their friends and families to move here, too. Parks are truly democratic spaces that all people can enjoy so investing in them is investing in the future of our entire city.

Oct. 24, 2018 Realty News Report Copyright 2018

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