Harlingen maps out a master plan for future of parks and recreation

HARLINGEN — Design a product that has to appeal to everybody from the age of 2 to the age of 100. It has to be available 365 days a year, and there’s no break for bad weather or anything else.

Oh, and it has to make everybody happy.

Welcome to the world of municipal parks.

The Harlingen City Commission soon will take up the final version of the Vision 2020 Comprehensive Plan, which will chart how the city proceeds over the next five years. A portion of that plan consists of the Master Plan for Parks and Recreation.

“For the size of Harlingen, we have a lot of parks, and a lot of amenities, a lot of accessibility for those parks,” said Javier Mendez, director of the Parks and Recreation Department.

Harlingen has 22 parks on 562 acres. They range in size from tiny neighborhood parks as small as 0.2 acres to large community parks with more than 80 acres.

Having a master plan for an urban parks department is more than merely a blueprint. As Mendez points out, the Harlingen parks master plan, once approved, will be a key bit of leverage when applying for grant money to improve parks.

Dr. Jamie Rae Walker, a faculty member at Texas A&M University and an expert on urban parks, said a master plan for parks is an invaluable tool to grab a handle on community demographics and growth, their relation to a city’s available resources and the desires of its citizens.

“They serve as a guide for tactically planning future upkeep, necessary changes and improvements,” Walker said via e-mail.

As a tool, a parks master plan can document the impacts individual parks are having in a community, as well as usage and needs regarding trails, facilities and open spaces.

“In simple terms, having a master plan is like heading out to the grocery store with a list that guides you to utilize your resources to buy healthy foods that will allow you to make nourishing meals for the following week,” she added.

“Not having a master plan is like heading to the store hungry, without a list, and getting a cart with a broken wheel.”

Overuse of parks

Two of the city’s parks, J.J. Victor Park and Pendleton Park, are being loved to death.

The master plan found that both parks are suffering from overuse. The parks, especially J.J. Victor, have too many facilities jammed into too little an area.

“We’re trying to spread some of that wealth around and move it to other parks,” Mendez said, “where we’ll be able to build fields.”

J.J. Victor Park is a 42-acre community park located at S. Expressway 77/83 and M Street. It has three lighted softball fields, two Little League fields, a dozen football/soccer fields, a half-dozen tennis courts, a playground, pool and more.

Pendleton Park, a 39-acre site at Morgan Boulevard and Grimes Avenue, has a dozen lighted tennis courts, a large pavilion, and seven lighted and unlighted softball and baseball fields, among other amenities.

Mendez says the city has the space to ease some of that congestion by developing new facilities elsewhere.

“For example, the Soccer Complex, we have 10 fields out there and we’ve only built on half of it. So we could build another 10 soccer fields if we want.”

While Victor Park “is pretty much at capacity,” Mendez says there’s still room for improvement at Pendleton, so there could be ways to lessen the congestion at that park.

Improve existing facilities or build new ones?

“That’s something we’ve been trying to work on,” he said. “Not necessarily building anything new, but trying to take care of what we’ve got.”

Mendez points out that there has been talk of building another swimming pool facility in Harlingen. But he notes that two of the city’s pools — Pendleton and Lon C. Hill — have been renovated. He said the Lon C. Hill pool renovation should be finished this month.

“We’ve got the Victor Park pool, and that (renovation) is coming up. We need to work on that before we go off and build another pool. We need to fix what we’ve got.”

Neighborhood parks

The National Recreation and Parks Association has a standard that a park should be within a certain distance — walking distance — from where city residents actually live.

But in Harlingen, many of the city’s established neighborhoods have little room for the insertion of a park.

“A lot of neighborhoods have already been developed, so it’s really tough for us to go in there and do something,” Mendez said.

“We’re trying to connect using our (2010) Trails Master Plan to try to connect as many parks as we can. So if somebody wants to walk or ride their bike, they can get to a park.”

Mendez says if the city were to stay the same, “we’re good with neighborhood parks.”

But time, and dynamic cities that are growing, don’t wait around.

“I know that we’re expanding to the west, so we would need something on the west side of town,” he said. “If somebody wants to donate some land …” Mendez says, trailing off into a laugh.

Nature tourism

In Harlingen, a river runs through much of the city. The Arroyo Colorado is a nearby feature at several of the city’s parks. Mendez reels them off: Dixieland is fairly close to it, Arroyo Park, C.B. Wood, McKelvey, Hugh Ramsey and the Harlingen Thicket.

One of the high-priority needs in the 2016 Parks Master Plan is the development of nature tourism facilities. Hugh Ramsey Nature Park, with 54 acres on South Loop 499, is a top priority.

The report describes the facilities at the park as “rudimentary,” and recommends they be improved with a focus on further development as a World Birding Center site. Better facilities would include improved trails, viewing stations, interpretive pavilions, classrooms and support needs, like parking, restrooms and signage.

Ramsey currently is undergoing a renovation and parking, at least, will be taken care of by the time it reopens later this month, Mendez said.

“I think there’s more we can do,” Mendez said. “More trails, maybe more ponds that we can put there.”

The parks director says it may be possible to expand the nature park to the east. That area connects with the old landfill.

“That was one of the things our consultant talked about, that maybe there’s a way to build trails on those caps, or pods, whatever they are.”

Other sites in the city that have potential as nature sites are the Harlingen Thicket, Arroyo Park and C.B. Wood, Mendez said.

“C.B. Wood is a lot larger than it appears because the area that’s developed is a small tract. … It goes along the arroyo and there are several lots that we own there that are heavily vegetated — mesquite, ebony, stuff like that.

“All that area could turn into a nature park,” Mendez said.

Usage fees

Prior to his arrival in Harlingen in 2014, Mendez was parks and recreation director for Cameron County. County parks charge usage fees that recently were doubled to $10 at Isla Blanca Park and other coastal parks, and at Beach access points five and six.

“Now that I don’t work there, I’d be a user and I don’t want to pay $10 to get onto the beach,” he said.

“I understand the reasoning because they’ve got to pay those bonds back, but I don’t know.”

Has there been any consideration of charging a fee for entrance to Harlingen’s parks?

“There has not been any of that discussion at all,” he said. “I try to figure out, OK, is there any way to generate revenue through our parks? But I don’t think it would fly if we would charge, let’s say, an entrance fee to Hugh Ramsey.

“I think I’d have my termination letter right away,” he said, laughing. “I think if we can afford it, why not just provide it for free?”