“This is a recovery from the drought of 2011, but also reimagining the park at the same time,” says Joe Turner, head of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, which is involved in the planning process.
Turner was at a presentation on the latest update of the plan, which has yet to be approved by the Houston City Council.
Also there was Thomas Woltz, the landscape architect who developed the blueprint. He says it will be a very different park from what it is today.
First, in terms of ecology, Woltz says the park has been taken over by invasive plants from Asia and Europe.
“Our expectation is to clear those out and restore prairie, woodland, pine forest that are the healthy, authentic Texas ecologies,” Woltz says. “We’re looking to those because they will be far more resilient in a drought or a hurricane or a flood than these non-native ecologies that aren’t of this place.”
So you can expect less forest in the park. The plan envisions maintaining woods only where the soil can sustain them.
Another major change is the 1,400 foot-long land bridge over Memorial Drive that would connect the north and south sides of the park. Traffic on the busy thoroughfare would be funneled through tunnels.
“For pedestrians and cyclists and parents with strollers, it’s going to be an extraordinary amenity allowing you to really, I think, for the first time feel that this is almost a 1,500-acre urban park,” Woltz says.
Other changes include moving all recreational facilities on the north side and improving them, and planting some trees in memory of the soldiers of Camp Logan (which was located here) who died in World War I.
It’s a cloudy day on the west side of the park when I meet Frank Smith.
Smith is a retired engineer and founding member of the Memorial Park Conservancy, one of the groups implementing the Master Plan.
But Smith has some problems with the project, in particular the land bridge.
He says Memorial Drive serves a useful purpose in separating the side where sports are played from the hiking and picnicking side.
Smith leads me down a path to one of several tunnels that allow the ravines in the park to flow under the roads.
He says if planners want to make it easier for park users and animals to walk from one side to the other, they could turn those tunnels into walkable passages.
“People used to ride horses under there,” Smith says. “And to me it’s totally ridiculous to build a land bridge and use that as one of the reasons for doing so.”
Smith also doesn’t like rerouting part of Memorial Drive. He says it’s all a waste of taxpayer money.
Which prompts a question: How will this all be paid for?
Shellye Arnold, executive director of the Memorial Park Conservancy, says there’s no way of telling exactly how much it’s going to cost. It depends on how individual projects are built.
“You design and fundraise simultaneously project by project,” she says. “Only at the end of the 10- or 20-year period do you know how much the cost was.”
But it’s safe to say that it’s in the hundreds of millions, according to Sarah Newbery with Uptown Houston.
What is clear is that the majority of the plan will be funded by the Uptown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone, or TIRZ.
Memorial Park was recently added to the Uptown TIRZ, which means tax money from that particular part of town will be used to upgrade the park.
A lot will also depend on the Houston City Council, which votes on the TIRZ’s budget every year.
Donations to the Conservancy, which works to preserve Memorial Park, will also make up a chunk of the funding for the new plan.
The next step is for council members to approve the plan. That could happen as soon as April 1.