Redoing Memorial Park: New $100 million plan to change Houston’s most important green space forever

Sep. 18, 2014Culture Map

A proposed grass- and tree-covered land bridge spanning about 800 feet across Memorial Drive designed to reconnect Memorial Park‘s north and south sections is just one highlight in the long-range plans to bring cohesiveness — ecological, social and historical — to the city’s largest designated green space.

Thomas Woltz, principal with Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, outlined the master plan for Memorial Park at a press event Thursday with displays of maps, photographs, drawings and rendered solutions on view, all the result of months’ worth of research. The final design is to go before the Houston City Council for consideration most likely in April, with public hearings for comments to be scheduled in the near future.

Woltz is leading the effort to vivify the grounds that were ravaged by Hurricane Ike in 2008 and by the droughts that have plagued Texas in recent years. He has surrounded himself with a team of 70-plus local ecology, history, archaeology, plant biology and more experts to assist in the massive undertaking.

With the extensive analysis stage just complete, Woltz spoke to CultureMap about the major goals within the master plan.

Woltz says the first goal in re-energizing Memorial Park is to update and strengthen its infrastructure. “Once we get the bones in place, the other components can be added and even moved about, until all is synchronized. It’s a park divided now, dissected into 24 fragments by roads, parking and recreational areas. And we want to bridge those parts.”

Infrastructure includes addressing water management, he says, as more than 58 million gallons of water are now used to irrigate park grounds, mainly the golf course. “While that water is free from the city,” he says, “we are looking into more natural methods to harvest water, such as through natural wetlands that were once found in the area.”

Woltz recalls the destruction — and the discoveries — of the drought that devastated the trees in Memorial Park and throughout Houston. “We learned that the park had become non-resiliant with non-native plants. A thicket is not native to Houston. Before, it was savannah, wetlands and woodlands. Our goal it to make it a resilient, strong ecology that will last for years with proper management.”

Incorporated into the overall plan is also recognition of the park’s history, particularly the World War I-era Camp Logan training facility that was located in Memorial Park from 1917-1919, and the early inhabitants, the Native American Karankawas.

“The park, right now, hides its history,” Woltz says. “We want to find ways to make that visible with a tribute of some kind to the soldiers and to its earliest inhabitants. We need to look at the past to better understand the future.”

Human Interaction
Woltz says he sees parks as more than just open spaces, but rather fundamental environments with presences as impactful as buildings. “One of the things that impresses me most is the scale of this project,” he says. “The project shows us the healing power and need by humans for the environment. We rebuild and take care of it, and we are rebuilding and taking care of ourselves.”

The landscape architect sees Memorial Park as a model project for similar endeavors.

“The regeneration project for Memorial Park could be the vanguard of development or redevelopment for city parks across the United States. And I think it will become just that.”

The Houston Parks and Recreation Department  began in 2011 to begin developing a long-term forestry management plan for the park, with the ongoing drought the driving force behind the initiative. In May 2013, the Uptown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone boundary was expanded to include Memorial Park, and in September that same year, the privately funded Memorial Park Conservancy selected Nelson Byrd Woltz to oversee the major undertaking to restore this 1,500-acre escape that attracts 4 million residents each year.

Funding for the project, estimated to cost upwards of $100 million and take as long as 20 years, is coming from the three entities.