HOUSTON -- Want to speed up play in golf? Perhaps the new plan for Houston's Memorial Park Golf Course could spur golfers to play faster. Just fill the parking lot with parking meters and press players to get their rounds finished before time expires.
That's right. At Houston's crown jewel of municipal golf courses -- the 1936 John Bredemus design that played host to the Houston Open for 14 years (last one in 1963) and might someday again -- golfers will soon be charged for parking on top of green fees and range balls. Parking meters also will be installed in front of the tennis center and fitness center and pool, but the majority of them will be at the golf course. All total, the plan calls for 572 of the nearly 2,200 spaces at the park to get the new meters, which will charge one dollar per hour. Plans call for the new meters to be in place before fall, according the Memorial Park Conservancy, operator and manager of 1,100 acres of Memorial Park’s 1,500 acres.
The parallel parking alongside the roads that lead in and out to the park's amenities, as well as some other lots, will still be unmetered. So golfers who don't want to pay to park can take one of those spots, but they might have to carry their clubs a good ways. That's not exactly convenient, so most golfers, it would seem, will probably opt to pay the meter to avoid getting ticketed.
An even $2 or six hours would allow for range balls before the round and a beverage after play. Fortunately, these are the kind of meters you can pay with a phone app, so golfers won't have to carry exact change when they get to the golf course. But for golfers who don't have a smartphone, this could certainly be an inconvenience as they fumble to find the right change or swipe a credit card.
A gift that comes with a small price
But why is this happening?
Ironically, the new meters will arrive because of a generous donation from billionaire Richard Kinder (co-founder and executive chairman of Kinder Morgan Inc., an energy and pipeline corporation) and his wife, Nancy. The two gifted $70 million to fund a plan for sweeping improvements to the park, approved unanimously by Houston City three years ago. It's an ambitious project to say the least. Plans call for more bike and hike trails to connect with other existing trails in the city, a new running center and large sodded bridges, complete with trees and other plants, over Memorial Drive that connect what is now a divided park.
According to the Houston Conservancy, the master plan provides a "comprehensive vision to create a healthy balance between conservation and recreation."
It was designed by award-winning landscape architect firm Nelson Byrd Woltz with input from stakeholder groups and the general public.
"Seeking to enhance, preserve and protect Memorial Park for years to come, completed projects over the next decade will improve Houston’s mobility, connectivity, economic vitality, and resiliency. Hundreds of acres of parkland currently inaccessible will become accessible, urban barriers that isolate and segregate the park will be replaced with bridges and access points, and park ecologies will be restored to a healthier state," according to the Conservancy.
The Kinder Foundation, however, has a stipulation. The money can only be used for improving the park and building new facilities; the city of Houston must cover all maintenance costs.
By charging for parking, the city hopes to raise $135,000 for the fiscal year 2019 for maintenance. Another $200,000 from golf course revenue is also being earmarked for overall park maintenance. As it stands, Memorial Park Golf Course, which does more than 70,000 rounds per year, already helps fund the other golf courses in the city's municipal system.
The course, by the way, might see even more dramatic changes in its near future as it's been mentioned as a possible host course for the PGA Tour's Houston Open, if that tournament survives at all. The event currently doesn't have a title sponsor, but there have been reports that Houston Astros owner and billionaire Jim Crane might step in and save the event with a possible move to Memorial. Any such move, however, would require a massive renovation of the golf course.
Some opposed the meter plan
While the parking plan was approved at City Council meeting on April 28, not all the council members believe the plan is fair. City Council member Mike Knox, At Large, Position 1, says golfers, tennis players and people who use the fitness center are being unfairly burdened. They represent the minority of the 4 million people who visit the park annually, he said.
"The vast majority of people who go to the park are joggers and bicyclists," Knox said. "And they're going to be able to continue to use the park and park in free areas. They're basically able to take advantage of park and they don't have to pay back. For some reason, the golfers, tennis players and people who use the fitness center – where those parking lots are convenient to those locations – are being asked to carry the burden."
Knox said he argued with the conservancy that it should be all or nothing.
"You either make everybody pay to park or nobody pays to park," he said he told them. "But that didn't fly."
One benefit to golfers, though, might be that the meters would discourage non-golfers to park in the lot in front of the clubhouse. Though there's a sign in front of the lot prohibiting parking from non-golfers or park goers not dining at the clubhouse restaurant, Becks Prime, joggers and bikers routinely park in the lot anyway.
So golfers, especially in the evenings when they want to use the lighted driving range, have a hard time finding spaces. They often turn to parking down the street or waiting in the parking lot, idling their engines, waiting for a space to open. Finding an open space that much sooner just might be worth a buck or two.
"I don't think it (the meter plan) will hurt golfers" said Carl Ahrens, who has played Memorial Park for decades, including winning multiple Greater Houston City Amateur titles. "It may actually help with the parking. Some of my buddies have actually had to park away from the course and carry the clubs to what amounts to block away.
"But it just doesn't seem right that such a beautiful place like Memorial Park would have parking meters."