Golfers and gardeners alike have reason to cheer as the City Council on Wednesday formally backed the transformation of two city-owned green spaces in the East End: one into a renovated, marquee links and the other into a landmark botanic garden.
At Gus Wortham Golf Course east of downtown, the Houston Golf Association plans to pour up to $15 million into restoring and renovating the course. At Glenbrook Golf Course, a few miles farther east, the Houston Botanic Garden wants to launch what could be a $40 million effort to develop a signature attraction for the city.
"I have been in the weeds of these two projects for the last year, and I can't tell you how excited I am … not just for District I but for the city of Houston," said Councilman Robert Gallegos, whose district includes both courses. "These agreements will allow both organizations to pump over $50 million in private dollars to improve these green spaces, and it will be a great addition to our city's many cultural offerings."
Officials have discussed for more than a year whether one of the eastside courses would give up golf operations in favor of a garden, amid a backdrop of stagnant or falling revenues at most of the city's municipal links. Houston Botanic Garden named Gus Wortham its first choice but it became clear community members opposed the idea, preferring a push by private citizens to raise money to renovate Gus Wortham.
After the Houston Golf Association offered to step in, the council voted in November to stick with golf at Gus Wortham and offer the Glenbrook course to the garden instead.
The council formalized that approach by approving lease agreements Wednesday with both nonprofits.
Jeff Ross, president of Houston Botanic Garden, and Steve Timms, president of Houston Golf Association, said approving the agreements will ease fundraising for the projects.
"We're very excited," Ross said. "The Glenbrook property is a beautiful piece of property. It's got some challenges; we're up to the challenges. Having the identification of a site is key. It's hard to raise money when you don't have that, so today's vote was very significant."
Gus Wortham became a flashpoint for golfers and some residents because it's the oldest course in Texas, was the original home of the Houston Country Club, and hosted such past luminaries as Howard Hughes. Both golf courses became targets of the garden group, in part because it is difficult to find large green spaces in the heart of any city - Wortham is 150 acres and Glenbrook 120 - and because reaching a deal to lease public green space would save the many millions of dollars that would be needed to buy a large private tract.
Though Gus Wortham drew almost all of the debate last year, some residents concerned about the garden's plans for Glenbrook said Wednesday they had not been given a chance to give input on the proposal.
"You think it's just a golf course. It's much, much more than that," said resident Rebecca Sallans. "This is our green space. It's the only place we have to walk. There are no sidewalks. We walk our dogs, we run, we enjoy it daily."
Ross said some of these criticisms are fair because the garden group's outreach has focused mainly on the area around Gus Wortham, but he said the approval of the Glenbrook lease will allow the sorts of plans residents want to now be drafted.
Other neighbors to the Glenbrook site supported the plan.
"When paired with the expansion we're seeing at Hobby Airport, the expansion of the Gulfgate (Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone), this could be a real catalyst to bring redevelopment to the area, an area that has enormous potential but, unfortunately, a lot of it is unrecognized potential," said resident Robert Searcy.
The leases have 30-year terms and can be extended for another 60 years beyond that, with the full 90-year term covered by a nominal $100 rent payment. The agreements make the nonprofits responsible for all fundraising, operations and maintenance and let them keep all revenues generated, with no ongoing city investment envisioned at either site. Gallegos has, however, agreed to put $1 million of capital dollars toward improving access at each site, such as by building better entrances, turn lanes or bike paths nearby, said Andy Icken, the city's chief development officer who negotiated the deals.
The golf and gardens groups must hit formal fundraising goals before they take possession of either course.
Each must clear an initial fundraising hurdle of $5 million by the end of the year. When the golf group reaches this mark, it will assume control of the course, pending a more detailed fundraising plan of how it will raise the remaining cash.
For the garden group's lease to take effect, it must hit not only the $5 million mark but a second $20 million hurdle - enough for the first phase of its project - by the end of 2017.
In addition to the $5 million it must raise by the end of the year, Timms' group also faces deadlines. Conceptual plans for the renovation - which the lease requires to be done in keeping with the historic layout of the course - are due by September, with the work to be done by the end of 2017. All other improvements, including a new clubhouse, are to be done by the end of 2019.
"It's not only a great opportunity for us to restore this golf course, but also our First Tee expansion, junior golf, and a lot of things we think we can do that will be real positive in the city," Timms said.
The leases are similar. Both spell out annual fees the nonprofits will pay to the city, ranging from $20,000 to $50,000, depending on how much revenue they generate.
Both agreements call for the groups' conceptual and construction plans and any changes to them to get city representatives' approval.