September 26, 2011 4:03 PM
McALLEN — Architects, businessmen and civic-minded McAllen residents gathered at the Palm View Community Center last week with a question: What should become of the city’s long-neglected Botanical Gardens?
A forest covers more than half the 22-acre property, which McAllen shuttered several years ago. Aerial photos uncovered by the Valley Land Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving native habitat in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, show that remnant of the region’s native Tamaulipan forest was densely wooded as far back as 1939.
Organized by the Land Fund and City of McAllen, the five-hour brainstorming session brought together more than 50 people Thursday afternoon. The meeting produced a host of ideas, ranging from a nature preserve to a no-holds-barred development called “The Oasis at Botanical Gardens.”
Established by volunteers, the gardens — known by several names, including the McAllen Nature Center and Valley Botanical Gardens — gradually fell into disrepair and faded from the public consciousness. Few seemed to care about the gardens until May 2010, when city leaders proposed building tennis courts on the property.
“It was that event that brought it to the fore,” said Stefanie Herweck, a member of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club who helped organize opposition to the proposed tennis complex.
Residents rallied around the gardens and soundly defeated the proposition, which included other sports venues. Voters also rejected a proposition that would have allowed city leaders to sell Westside Park. The special election pitted environmentalists against sports boosters and made the gardens a political hot potato.
“There was a lot of contention at the time,” Herweck said. “It turned into a very positive thing, and I think that’s the story.”
Today, both sides have moved forward.
City leaders have committed to protecting and eventually reopening the gardens. They’ve also earmarked other city-owned property for new sports fields.
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