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West U City Council Forum: Candidates Discuss Purchasing Parkland

April 1, 2013 By:InstantNewsWestu Staff

Local News

InstantNewsWestU.com is hosting an online candidate forum for the West U City Council candidates.

Questions and the candidates’ answers will be published throughout the weeks leading up to early voting.

There are five candidates vying for four city council seats. Mayor Pro Tem Susan Sample, Councilman Dick Yehle, Councilwoman Joan Johnson and Councilman Ed Heathcott are all running for re-election. Friends of West U Parks Board Member Sonny Brandtner is running for a city council seat.

Readers who wish to submit questions for the candidates should e-mail them to sara@instantnewswestu.com.

Candidates’ answers are published as they are received, without any editing by InstantNewsWestU.com. The candidates responses are posted in ballot order.

Question:

The City of West U has been looking at parkland acquisition in the Mercer/Pittsburg area for several years. One of the tracts of land that the city has considered purchasing is two large lots owned by the Ownby family. The lots, 3615 Pittsburg  and 3619 Pittsburg , are located along Poor Farm Ditch and total 38,553 square feet. The properties are currently for sale for $3.6 million.

The city also recently considered purchasing three additional lots on Mercer for future parkland, but decided not to move forward with the purchase. The lots that were under consideration were 6522 Mercer, 6528 Mercer and 6532 Mercer. The cost of all three lots was more than $2 million.

The city had considered the possibility of assembling all five lots together for a future park. If the city were to pursue purchasing all of the lots it would cost about $5.6 million, plus the cost of development.

Based on these facts, are you in support of this acquisition? If so, how do you propose to pay for it?

Map of parkland

Sonny Brandtner –

As a member of the Friends of West University Parks Board, I actively support continuous improvement of our existing parks. I am equally passionate about opportunities to expand our green space for future City parks.

It is a priority of our City to have a park within walking distance for all our residents. The land acquisition at Mercer/Pittsburgh would provide residents in the South Central part of our community with a park that is within walking distance. However, I have two concerns: First, $5.6 Million seems to be a high price for 5 lots. Second, we will still have to buy additional lots to have a park completely visible from a street.  Accordingly, I do not support the acquisition as proposed.

If we decide to pursue the acquisition, I believe we must aggressively negotiate the $5.6 Million price and also determine the availability and cost of the additional lots needed to have a totally visible park. Our voters have already approved bond money to spend on parkland. If we need to raise additional money, I would be in favor of another low interest bond, assuming fiscal responsibility is maintained.

Our West University Little League is the biggest in the Country. Our softball and soccer programs are growing. Open parkland that allows for other sports and open unorganized play is also a priority. Over the long-term let’s think big and position our community for a large acquisition of green space.

Dick Yehle –

I support the current Park Master Plan that has a goal of providing parks within walking distance of all homes and  without the need to cross a major thoroughfare.  By that definition, the Mercer Street area is underserved and the properties identified would satisfy that objective.  However, even though the 2006 election gave voter approval to acquire up to $2 million of parkland, the cost of the identified properties exceeds that authorization.  Furthermore, the necessary due-diligence has yet to be performed to understand the views of the Mercer area residents who would be most affected by a park in that location.  Therefore, I advocate that prior to moving ahead with the outlined plan, full consultation with residents and possibly voter approval for the required bonding is appropriate.

Parkland acquisition is a surprisingly difficult issue because well-located properties are expensive and hard to find.  That is compounded by the fact that once a property is identified, getting public approval for the expenditure is usually impractical given the limited time most properties are available for sale.  Conversely, seeking voter approval for money without a well-defined target property is also difficult to obtain.  Another dimension of the puzzle is satisfying both those people who want more parkland and those who may not want it near their home.  It is therefore important to assess all of the competing issues to find the proper balance of public opinion.

Joan Johnson –

I believe that the City should not purchase any parkland at this time.  Before another parkland purchase is made, we must first become fully aware of all of our residents’ viewpoints on this topic. This can be achieved by updating the 2000 Parks Plan with the input from our citizens acquired from town hall meetings and email comments.

After updating the 2000 Parks Plan, if purchase of additional parkland is recommended, we could put this item on a voter referendum.  This would provide City Council with the residents’ decision on how to approach the purchase of additional parkland.

As mentioned above, this City Council will ask for your input either through town hall meetings or email, and we appreciate your participation.  We do review the results of your responses. The input of the majority of residents is taken into account.

Susan Sample –

The existing WUP Parks Master Plan was completed in 2000. Its stated objectives include providing location-appropriate parks and having a neighborhood park within a 5 to 10 minute walk from all homes. It also established a two-tier park system – Tier-One being neighborhood parks serving nearby residents (within walking distance) and Tier-Two being community parks serving the whole city -namely Colonial Park.

The 2006 parks bond approved by voters permits WUP to purchase parkland anywhere “east of Auden Street and west of Buffalo Speedway” in order to meet the Master Plan objective ensuring a neighborhood park for this area. Although various potential locations within this area have been identified, none have been approved, and this area of WUP still does not have a park within safe walking distance – residents in this area, and their children, must cross a busy street to get to the nearest WUP park. I still favor purchasing a neighborhood park – within the approved $2 million budget – for this underserved area.

The size (and cost) of the Pittsburg/Mercer property appears to be more appropriate for a Tier Two Community Park. I recommend we have our 13-year-old Master Plan updated to consider current resident desires and park needs before we even entertain a major acquisition such as this.  The process should be public, include surveys, town hall meetings, and input from interested city residents.  If the plan recommends new parks, a voter referendum would be necessary to determine if a majority of residents supports such acquisition.

Ed Heathcott –

Initially, I was supportive of a park site at Mercer/Pittsburg because of good police circulation through the area and seemingly the property owners abutting the park property were supportive.  In the following weeks neither of these concepts was affirmed.  The Ownby property is over priced for use as a park in my view, and all the five lots needed for the park as originally envisioned are over $5 million, not including development.  When I ran for office two years ago, I made a commitment to budget restraints to prevent the possibility of a property tax increase and I am still committed to this position.  In the next six years the City must be prudent in budget spending and any new spending projects could necessitate a property tax increase.  With this in mind, a potential major park project must be brought before West U citizens and gain their support for location as well as the additional personal financial obligation they may need to accept.

16 Responses to “West U City Council Forum: Candidates Discuss Purchasing Parkland”

  1. LHG Says:

    Those of us who were around in the 1940s remember that Southside Place was upscale and West University Place was a little down on the scale. If we kids north of University wanted to swim during those hot summers when there was no air-conditioning, we had to ride a bus to the downtown Y’s. Southside Place was developed with a swimming pool and they didn’t share with their neighbors to the north. Years ago, there was concern by some of the homeowners in Southside about sections of their backyards falling into the ditch from erosion. The residents of both cities would benefit if the ditch was fitted with a new drainage system and filled in providing a new park with a jogging trail and easements where bridges could be built connecting the cities.

  2. Sonny Brandtner Says:

    Wolfgang,
    Good idea to pursue with our South Side Place neighbors. We would need to find a place on the ditch where we have common area land on both sides. SB

  3. Mercer Resident Says:

    Agreed that the asking price for the Ownby properties is excessive – however, the appraised (and market) values listed on HCAD are substantially less. It seems that there is quite a bit of room for negotiating the price.

  4. Wolfgang Says:

    Looking at a Google map of the proposed park, the question that comes to mind is why not build a pedestrian crossing over Poor Farm and enjoy the South Side park located 1 more block over. I know it’s not WestU, but is having the park inside our city limits, at this particular location, worth the extra 3.6 million vice walking an additonal block? Is this about status or about having a nice area to take the kids to?

    • Brokelyn Says:

      Excellent idea! Someone needs to elevate this to the Council for a formal discussion.

  5. miltonwatchdog Says:

    Too bad so many of the beautiful big lots are covered by concrete slabs and mini-mansions with no yards. Kids need a yard to play in. When I moved to West U in ’71, we had beautiful large lots with happy kids who could play safely all day in their own yard. Now we take them to an expensive, but ugly park with plastic pool stuff and no grass in the play area. I see too many parents there that pay more attention to their phones than their kids. The parents say we “need” more parks, when in reality, the kids need their own yard at home and love and attention from their parents.

  6. Brokelyn Says:

    Where’s the “Like” button? Well said.

  7. Michael Says:

    Lets think outside the box, how about we buy part of the shell facilty that is for sale and build a bigger park? I know it is not in West U, but it is close by?
    If the charter won’t allow it, lets change it.

  8. miltonwatchdog Says:

    One candidate wants to put a dog park next to the Rec Center (the “junker” land with the train . . .). Suggest we buy the overpriced lots on the “other side of the ditch” and put the dog park there.

  9. Sue Hanna Says:

    There are very few large plots of land that are available. As time goes on, there will be fewer and fewer. I don’t think the Ownby property is overvalued at all. My husband and I moved to West U in 2000 and moved three times, each time for a bigger lot. The land prices have more than doubled since we relocated to Houston. I don’t see this trend ending any time soon. In ten more years the land will be twice the cost today.

    • LHG Says:

      If a trend is beginning where major companies move their offices and employees to less congested areas with cheaper housing and better public schools, I wonder about land values continuing to increase in neighborhoods like West U, Bellaire, Southampton, etc.

    • Brokelyn Says:

      Did you purchase land or homes? Are you commenting on the increase in the value of the land (measured by the selling price of empty lots and/or tear-downs) or the value of the homes you purchased?

      From the time you relocated to Houston through 2007 we (and the country) enjoyed an unprecedented period of land appreciation that, as we all know, crashed in the subsequent crisis. While demand has recovered, the price appreciation you are suggesting over the next decade suggests that we will enjoy another asset bubble. Heck of a prediction.

  10. Downton Abbey Says:

    That kind of coin, only options are to get some of the “junker” land on Community with the train blasting down the back yard. Not the southwest West U properties which are the most expensive in the city.

  11. Brokelyn Says:

    Reasonable replies.

    Keeping it simple, the cost of acquisition must be reasonable. That means $60-$65/square foot. The properties described above are asking for waaay more than that and as a result this particular opportunity should be tabled unless specific residents and corporate donors were willing to cover the difference.

    • Sue Hanna Says:

      You obviously have no idea what land costs in West U.

      • Brokelyn Says:

        I live in West U and own two properties in West U, both acquired within the past 1-3 years at market rates. My spouse was a Realtor in West U and I have used HAR data to analyze property prices each quarter for the past 13 quarters. I base my statement upon my personal experience bidding (and closing) on properties here and upon the third-party data I’ve analyzed.

        That said, you are entitled to your opinion. Perhaps I know nothing.

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