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Houston Arboretum now charging to park

February 1, 2019

Visitors who drive to the Houston Arboretum & Nature Center and aren’t members must now pay to park most days.

The non-profit nature preserve at the southwest corner of Memorial Park activated new parking meters at its 282 parking spaces on Friday. Fees are $1 per hour, with a maximum of $5 per day, payable via credit card at the meters or through the ParkMobile app on Android or iPhones. Members of the arboretum receive codes to park for free, and all visitors may park for free on Thursdays.

All parking revenue will go directly back to the Arboretum, as the organization continues moving forward with projects of a master plan adopted in 2015 to restore native habitat across its 155 acres and upgrade its nature education experiences.

The paid parking initiative has been in the works for some time, approved by City Council in December 2015 when the Arboretum renegotiated its contract. The Arboretum does not receive tax money for maintenance and operations, and it considered initiating an admission fee during those negotiations — an option city officials declined, said Christine Mansfield, the Arboretum’s marketing and development manager.

“This way, if people use public transportation or bike or walk — which we’d like to encourage — they get in free,” Mansfield said.

To date, the Arboretum has raised $23.6 million toward improvements and significantly scaled back the projects outlined in its original, $40 million master plan. Executive director Debbie Markey told the Chronicle last year that the reduction forced the organization’s leaders to re-focus on the heart of its educational mission. They determined that the city did not need another elaborately designed space in the vein of downtown’s Discovery Green or the Upper Kirby District’s Levy Park.

The Arboretum completed the first projects of its master plan last year with the opening of a new, 15-acre savanna and prairie habitat, which features two ponds and a boardwalk. Infrastructure projects, including new roads and parking lots, were also part of phase I. Mansfield said visitation has risen significantly since the Arboretum opened a new gate on the Loop 610 North feeder road last year.

Now a new conservation center is complete, providing space for staff to grow plants and meet with volunteers; and four “field stations,” small pavilions tucked into areas of the preserve where visitors can learn more about what they are seeing, have been built.

Mansfield said the popular ravine trail that has been closed for three years will reopen in March, with two sturdy new bridges similar to those in Buffalo Bayou Park that will not be impacted by floods or create drainage issues.

The original parking lot is being demolished to make way for a new administration building that will be completed this year, before a phased renovation begins on the Arboretum’s original nature center building. The new and renovated spaces will be connected by a new courtyard and lawns, Mansfield said.

She said complaints about the new parking fee have been minimal. “A lot of people understand that we had visitors who were using the Arboretum but not contributing,” she said. She said the free Thursday parking is intended to keep the Arboretum accessible to all, and that parking will also be free during major family events.

molly.glentzer@chron.com

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