Conservancy points to prairie habitat, planned Levitt Pavilion as reasons for city to grant designation

A citizen-led effort is afoot for the 291-acre Willow Waterhole Conservation Reserve to become Houston’s next signature park by summer 2016.

“Obviously it’s a goal of ours. It’s been a goal for a long time,” said Ralph Rieger, president of the Willow Waterhole Greenspace Conservancy.

A renewed sense of volunteerism at the park, its use by area schools as a venue for music and athletic events, plans to restore remnants of Houston’s coastal prairie there and the park’s selection for the nation’s next Levitt Pavilion are among factors that have Rieger and others more hopeful than ever.

“It could happen,” Rieger said.

Hermann and Memorial park are the only city parks with “signature” status because they have “partnering organizations that provide a higher level of design and maintenance,” according to Houston Parks and Recreation Department’s current Parks Master Plan. Creating more signature parks is a key goal of the 2008 plan, which names Willow Waterhole among seven potential candidates. With the parks department working to update the master plan, the conservancy is busy on several fronts to achieve signature status.

“We have to provide the amenities,” said Russell Schexnayder, a member of the conservancy’s Greenspace Committee who has been involved with Willow Waterhole’s development since the 1990s and is rallying support for the signature designation.

“My plan is to raise public awareness so that it becomes an issue in next year’s mayoral election,” Schexnayder said.

The conservancy was created in 2001 as part of an initiative to revitalize the Westbury area. It works with the parks department and the Harris County Flood Control District to develop the green space around six stormwater detention ponds being built by the district and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as part of the massive Project Brays flood-control project.

Construction is under way on the fourth pond, and proponents are lobbying Harris County officials to fund the final two next year, well ahead of the planned 2017 opening of the nation’s eighth nonprofit Levitt Pavilion. Headed by Howard Sacks, a former conservancy president, the Friends of Levitt Pavilion Houston is raising $10 million to build an outdoor music venue for staging free concerts.

A $750,000 Texas Parks and Wildlife Department grant helped kick-start the park project in 2000, and by 2005 the conservancy was able to host its first Fun Run and Walk at the park. Since then, Willow Waterhole has become a well-known destination for bird-watchers, with 192 species sighted in monthly bird counts – the most of any Houston location and comparable to the Katy Prairie.

The park routinely hosts music and movie events, and Westbury High School’s crosscountry teams use the park’s trails.

A federal survey done for the flood-reduction project found remnants of Texas’ coastal prairie, including the endangered Texas prairie dawn plant. The finding requires the flood control district to set aside and restore a 15-acre prairie management area, which is expected to open later this year. The conservancy board is working with parks department staff members and landscape architectural firm White Oak Studio to implement a federal $399,000 project to restore the prairie habitat and add parking, trails, signage and an outdoor classroom.

Volunteers have been busy making wildflower seedballs to use on the park’s meadowlands. A seedball toss is planned for 9 a.m. Oct. 25, with registration at The Gathering Place, 5310 South Willow.

For additional information about the reserve, visit

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By Robin Foster