Public-private partnerships for parks(see if you can say that title 10 times fast...) At David Crossley's monthly Livable Houston meeting yesterday, David raised the very legitimate concern that Houston's expected hyper-growth of 3 million new people over the next 30 years will wipe out many of the large, continuous areas of greenspace in our region (see this HGAC projection). Now, even though the maps look pretty scary, I think his case may be a tad exaggerated, as I live in Meyerland, one of the redder density squares on his map, and our neighborhood is pretty green by most people's standards. But he has a fair point that fragmented greenspace among private yards are not the same thing as larger greenspace areas like Memorial Park.
Some of the problem is being addressed by Harris County Flood Control as they build more flood control parks under Project Brays like Willow Waterhole (discussed before here), but we are a long, long way from the original vision of linear parks along the hundreds of miles of bayous in our region. How can we do more when local government budgets are so tight and land is getting more expensive every year?
Here's a simple solution: for large-scale developers willing to purchase large plots of land for master-planned community development, and also willing to set aside a substantial portion of that land as public park space, let them tap the power of local government eminent domain to assemble the large blocks of contiguous land that they need to make both the development economics and the parks work. It's a true win-win: the developer gets an attractive park space near their community that enhances its value and the land he needs to make the whole project work, while the public gets a nice park out of the deal at no expense to taxpayers.
Now, after the Kelo case, I know eminent domain is a sensitive topic these days. I still feel the same as when I wrote about the case last June: in these non-standard eminent domain cases, it probably makes sense to set a higher hurdle to discourage abuse - maybe a 20% or more premium over assessed "fair market value" for the acquired parcels.
There's another benefit to this approach too. Developers are sprawling ever farther out to find large continuous swaths of land they can get at affordable prices, and they're leaving undeveloped gaps closer-in. Houston and Harris County feel the developer disinterest vs. much more attractive options in Montgomery, Ft. Bend, and Brazoria counties. If this process makes it easier to assemble larger areas closer-in for development, we can get a more compact metro that better utilizes our existing infrastructure, including roads and freeways - not to mention adding parks and greenspace to our core.
Ironing out the detailed processes, requirements, and oversight groups will be tricky, but I think it would be an extremely worthwhile investment in the long-term health of our region.