The Gold Course: East End Compromise Shows How Essential Green Space Is
Art by Shelby Hohl
Houston’s East End may get a large-scale botanical garden and a restored, historical golf course-but it was a long fight for a compromise, and it’s not really over.
The Gus Wortham Park Golf Course spans over a hundred acres on Wayside, cutting a wide swath of grass and trees in the middle of the busy East End. The neighborhood that used to be a River Oaks predecessor was ripe for a giant course when it was built in 1908. First called the Houston Country Club, the golf course made use of the natural rolling hills and the meandering Buffalo Bayou. The course has boasted famous Houstonians like Howard Hughes, but it’s still known as one of the most affordable greens in town.
Despite affordability, despite history and despite accessibility, the golf course’s attendance has slipped since the mid 1990s.
Yet, when the course was being considered for a future Dynamo stadium, the community rallied against it and won. And last year, when the Houston Botanic Garden (HBG) nonprofit eyed the space for a world-class botanical garden, the community rose up again with a mighty voice.
Just kidding! They were totally divided.
Council meetings, town hall meetings and Swamplot comments sections alike have been ablaze with those defending the history and timelessness of their beloved golf course and those who see a more accessible, more culturally and more economically viable garden. It came down to the age-old battle Houston, what with its current revitalization and popularity, has been struggling with more and more: what to preserve, and what to progress.
So why did the course fall into such straits? Lack of interest, or maintenance? The Parks and Recreation Department’s Operational Review and Recommendations For Municipal Golf Operations (2005) noted when attendance fell 50% since 1990s, maintenance cutbacks “clearly had a lot to do with the declines.” It currently sits at just under 25,000 rounds played last year.
The review also took into account local interest. They found household demand to be “the lowest of the Houston sub-markets evaluated.”
This same concern was expressed by the pro-garden groups and community members, who mentioned the public trail along the course’s perimeter is just not enough. At the April 22 City Council meeting, Amy Dinn said, “There’s an inherent conflict with operating a golf course and flying golf balls and community access.”
It’s actually a unanimous agreement from both camps. Even RENI, president of the nonprofit corporation Wortham Park Friends Inc., that was championing preservation, said there’s “Not much more since the [park] has no … sort of refreshment area for the past [two] or more years.”
However, “[I]n the future all that is subject to change with our business plan where we hope to have indoor [and] outdoor eateries, ballroom, meeting rooms, music events,” and so on. The renovation, RENI told FPH, includes adding more yards to qualify Wortham as a pro tournament course, open to national and international tours. James Estrada, a golfer also working with pro-Wortham groups, told the City Council he’s struck a deal to host a Ladies Professional Golf Association tournament as early as January 2023. Others point to the successes of Memorial and Hermann Park courses after renovation.
But pro-garden advocates and Houston Botanic Garden (HBG) say a garden will attract more citizens and tourists alike while bringing more business into the East End, especially since the location sits by the end of the promised Harrisburg METRORail. Their master plan includes hilltop vistas, amphitheaters, research greenhouses and a public park. “Ideally, the 125 acres at Wortham Park allows us to create a world-class botanic garden and provides land for future expansion,” HBG told FPH.
Garden advocates have cited the economic and aesthetic successes of gardens across the country. And really, if Dallas has one, I want Houston’s to be better.
Mayor Parker has said the city cannot pull money away from neighborhoods for either multi-million dollar effort. Each nonprofit is fully responsible for saving or destroying one of the few immersive green spaces in the loop. It’s made East Enders a little jumpy about their landmark becoming another row of bland townhomes and stores-a Houston trend as we strip off Astrodomes for condos.
“Once the golf course is destroyed,” said RENI, “a plethora of choices are available with a strike of the pen from the state to do anything with the billion dollar piece of real estate!”
HBG raised $300,000 during one luncheon, but they say they can’t do much else without a confirmed location. WPF told FPH they’ve raised money since forming last September from sources like the Texas Golf Association.
But Sylvia Medina, past president of the Eastwood Civic Association, told the city council on April 22, “In nine years, Friends of Gus Wortham [its former name] raised $100,000 and then stopped. I am very fearful they will raise the money, and then it cannot be maintained.”
On May 7, Mayor Parker told the press Wortham will stay a golf course-maybe. They’re negotiating a “term sheet” concerning renovations, fundraising timelines and other fun stuff with interested groups, WPF in particular.
HBG has been offered Glenbrook Golf Course, a smaller but nice spot just under the South Loop. Now the East End may have two amenities-a bargain many asked for already. “There’s room for a botanical garden,” Bob Tamley told the city council, “and you don’t have to tear up 106 years of history to build it.” The garden proposal will have a second chance at the East End if WPF can’t produce results.
Either way, it’s not really over.