|Columbia Tap Rail-Trail & South MacGregor Way||Texas AIDS Memorial Garden||
since 1 December 1986
Everyone thinks bike paths are a good idea. Just maybe not in their own neighborhood.
On July 18, 2013, Michael Lee watched a guy on a bulldozer dig up the grass making up the greenbelt that wound through the expansive garden behind Lee's home in Houston's Third Ward.
After months of fighting Mayor Annise Parker's office over the development of a 277-yard-long portion of bike path behind a block of homes on Ardmore Street, near where MacGregor Way intersects Texas 288, Lee had lost. Lee, a 60-year-old softspoken architect, and his neighbors had fought this development ten years earlier, when then-Mayor Bill White announced that the city intended to convert a four-mile stretch of abandoned railroad right-of-way into a hike-and-bike path. As part of the Rails-to-Trails initiative, it was to be the latest achievement in the city's comprehensive Bikeway Program, which began in 1993.
Lee's neighbors, and community leaders, concerned about what they believed were safety issues, signed petitions, wrote letters, held meetings and successfully staved off White. For one thing, they didn't quite understand why it was necessary to have the trail extend south of Ardmore to the railroad bridge, which practically dead-ends into a massive food-distribution center for Grocers Supply. Not exactly scenic.
The city went ahead with the bike path anyway, just leaving out the section behind the Ardmore homes. The original plan was to have bicyclists embark from an old railroad bridge over 288 and travel in a straight shot behind the homes on Ardmore, across MacGregor and onto a bridge over Braes Bayou, through Texas Southern University and on to downtown. Today, the trail ends at BBVA Compass Stadium. Ultimately, the goal is to extend the path's north trailhead from the stadium to Discovery Green, potentially extending the dead-end Grocers Supply point to Hermann Park and the Bill Coates Bridge.
Lee shared his neighbors' safety concerns, but his opposition was also more personal: In 1986, before the city bought the land from Union Pacific Railroad, Lee, who is gay, began work on what would become the Texas AIDS Memorial Garden. He visualized a bucolic preserve dedicated to the memory of so many who had wasted away.
He planted crape myrtles, fragrant loquats, daylilies, citrus trees and tropical ginger. At the north end of the garden stood an 18-foot column with a plaque memorializing "AIDS Victims." He claimed that two people had asked for permission to sprinkle the ashes of their loved ones there. In 2004, OutSmart magazine sent a photographer to the garden's formal dedication.
Subsequently, as he and his neighbors opposed the Ardmore section of bike path because of perceived safety concerns, Lee attempted to prove that he legally owned the land where the garden stood. In a resulting lawsuit, Lee claimed that the land had been abandoned for so long that, through the doctrine of adverse possession, he was now the owner. (In 2002, Union Pacific sent Lee a letter, demanding that he remove all encroachments on its land in 30 days. Lee did not comply, and the railroad never followed up.)
Although he lost, the litigation stalled the project to the point where White threw up his hands and decided to make the bike path someone else's problem. The city went ahead with developing it, leaving out the approximately 1,500-foot section along Ardmore. This meant that bicyclists departing from the railroad bridge would have to bike on the street for three blocks before reconnecting with the path. (The path, sans the Ardmore connector, was completed in 2009 to great fanfare.)
When Parker announced in 2012 that she intended to close the gap in the bike path, known as the Columbia Tap, Lee's neighbors were decidedly less vocal. Parker dispatched the city's first sustainability director, Laura Spanjian, to meet with the neighboring civic club to let them know that this was happening whether they liked it or not.
Lee tried to rally the troops, to no avail. He flooded various city departments with open-records requests, wanting to get to the bottom of things. He smelled a conspiracy. Why was the mayor suddenly so intent on developing a little stretch of bike path? Why would a gay mayor want to mow down an AIDS memorial garden?
In a desperate bid for public sympathy, Lee launched a Web site telling the history of the garden and outlining the facts as he saw them. But at about 7:30 a.m. on July 18, he awoke to the sound of a bulldozer. Behind the wheel was Alan Atkinson, a Houston developer who was installing the concrete path at no cost to the city.
As Lee mourned the loss of his daylilies, some bicyclists aligned with the city rejoiced at the fact that their beloved Columbia Tap would now be complete. This was an important step in the greening of Houston. They applauded Parker for finishing what White should have finished years ago.
Photos (C) Craig Malisow Houston Press
14 August 2013
Craig Malisow, Houston