March 9 meeting to update Memorial Park master plan

Mar. 3, 2015Houston Chronicle

The fourth and final public update meeting regarding a proposed plan to renovate Memorial Park will be held from 6:30–8:30 p.m. Monday, March 9, in the Brown Auditorium at the Caroline Wiess Law Building of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston at 1001 Bissonnet St.

Screen Shot 2015-03-03 at 4.52.07 PMThe master plan consists of a number of projects proposed to restore habitat, upgrade amenities and address infrastructure issues at the 1,500-acre city park, located inside Loop 610 between Interstate 10 and Buffalo Bayou. Within the last decade, the park has felt the brunt force of a hurricane, has gone through a drought, and has experienced an increase in public usage, which is now estimated to be between 8,000 to 10,000 visitors per day.

The proposed park renovation plan would take place over a 20-year period, and is needed to address environmental issues that have affected the area, said Houston City Councilmember Ellen Cohen, whose District C claims the park.

“I’ve seen the park plan a couple of times, and I think the plan, if what is currently designed gets built, will benefit not only the constituents of District C but all Houstonians,” she said.

Memorial Park offers all types of recreation from picnicking and bird watching to soccer, swimming and golfing. It is also home to a multitude of wildlife and vegetation.

The master plan would establish methods of preserving the ecological system of the park and rework the park’s grounds in an attempt to better serve residents. The proposed plans include the creation of a storm water collection system to help irrigate the park land, moving ball fields into areas of the park that have already experienced ecological damage, and creating more connectivity between areas of the park.

Among the master plan’s proposed projects is the construction of an 800-foot wide land bridge over Memorial Drive, which divides the park. The bridge is to provide a safe crossing for people and wildlife and would add to the park’s green space, according to the master plan.

The March meeting, Cohen said, will be the last chance for the public to learn about the proposed renovation plan before the document makes its way to the council’s quality of Life Committee for review. If approved by the committee, the master plan would then be presented for approval to Houston City Council.

The master plan is being spearheaded by the Memorial Park Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that works to protect, restore and preserve the park. Cohen said the “conservancy has really stepped up to deliver a renovation plan that everyone can benefit from.”

Shellye Arnold, executive director of the Memorial Park Conservancy, said public surveys were combined with studies on the parkland’s ecology in developing the redesign projects proposed in the master plan.

She said the design proposal also would create additional hike-and-bike trails on the north side of the park and move high-speed bicyclists to the park’s northwest quadrant. Arnold said an area for equestrian use also could be established.

The conservancy is one of three groups, including the city of Houston Parks and Recreation Department and the Uptown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone, working on the Memorial Park Master Plan.

The last public update meeting regarding the park’s proposed renovation plans was held Jan. 12. Previous public update meetings regarding the park’s proposed renovation plans were held in September and November. Videos of the meetings and downloadable materials regarding the master plan are available online at www.memorialparktomorrow.org.

The meetings were held across Houston to help increase public awareness, Arnold said.

Costs are still unknown, but if the plan is approved by the city council, the Uptown TIRZ will provide significant funding. The tax reinvestment zone could put up as much as $150 million in funding, but that wouldn’t cover all expenses, Arnold said. Other funding could come from state and federal sources as well as from fundraising efforts of the Memorial Park Conservancy.

The plan could go before the council’s Quality of Life Committee in March, said Joe Turner, director of the Houston Parks and Recreation Department. After the Quality of Life Committee looks it over and decides to send it on to the city council, none of the proposed plan’s projects would begin until it is approved by the council. The parks department will continue to monitor the progress of the master plan and its implementation.

“While we work with the conservancy and Uptown Houston TIRZ to fund, develop and implement the Memorial Park Master plan, the Houston Parks and Recreation Department has the final approval on any project proposed for development within the park including those proposed by the Memorial Park Master Plan,” Turner said.

Overall public response to the plan has been positive, he said.

“There have been questions regarding individual issues that are focused on specific topics that the design team has tried to work with, but nothing that would be a conflict with the overall plan,” Turner said.