Council OKs plan to reimagine city’s marquee green space

Apr. 1, 2015Houston Chronicle

The joggers, hikers, cyclists, equestrians and ballplayers who use Memorial Park will see the city’s marquee green space reborn over the next two decades, a process furthered with the Houston City Council’s unanimous approval Wednesday of a new master plan for the park.

The detailed plan to restore, improve and maintain the city’s largest and most heavily used green space focuses on shifting ball fields to the park’s northeast corner, increasing parking spaces by 30 percent and creating two land bridges spanning Memorial Drive to reconnect the park’s major sections. The plan also would restore the drought-ravaged park’s ecosystem via fire suppression and irrigation systems, and improved drainage to end serious erosion problems in some areas.

Officials envision $300 million being invested, about $200 million of which would come from the Memorial Park Conservancy via private donations. The remainder would come from the Uptown tax increment reinvestment zone (TIRZ), which was expanded last year to cover the park. Those dollars are city property taxes that are generated within the zone and must be spent within its boundaries.

“We’re very excited to have this plan approved for the future of Houston,” conservancy executive director Shellye Arnold said. “Memorial Park is such a gem of Houston, and we will truly be able to deliver to Houston the park that Houston deserves.”

Goals and costs

As with most such master plans, the document defines goals for what the park should become over time, as funding becomes available to build the items proposed. Next, officials will design the projects, get clear estimates of what they will cost, and begin approaching donors, deciding how and when to apply public and private dollars to bring them to life.

The plan was developed through a year and a half of public meetings, surveys and workshops with park users, and incorporated research from local experts on such matters as soil ecology, hydrology, archaeology, history and traffic. It was created by the conservancy, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department and the Uptown zone, which committed $3.2 million to pay for the plan.

Mayor Annise Parker said the Uptown zone’s role will be to handle infrastructure: Improvements to drainage, irrigation, parking, roads and lighting; these efforts will guide the park to a “resilient and sustainable future,” said Thomas Woltz, the plan’s lead landscape architect.

“This project will work well because what a TIRZ can fund – infrastructure projects that are needed in parks – people don’t like to give money to,” said city parks director Joe Turner. “It’s not sexy, it’s not pretty. So we can establish that infrastructure, which we have to have, and then we can step in with the conservancy, and they can do the major fundraising pieces for those pieces that are flashy. It’s a great marriage.”

The plan is not without its detractors. Kaye Tynen has lived on Glenwood Drive, a stone’s throw from the park, for 14 years and has watched the traffic grow. Tynen said the parking spaces being added on the eastern edge will clog the neighborhood roads and make it dangerous for pedestrians. Like many of her neighbors, she asked council members at their Tuesday public session to demand a traffic study before moving forward.

“I love the idea of what they’re doing to the park,” Tynen said. “But I’m very concerned. As it is, I see people speeding down Crestwood, running stop signs, and it’s kind of dangerous.”

Most folks who live across from the park are reasonably anxious about change, Parker said, who on Wednesday acknowledge traffic flow risks in the area and asked Turner on Wednesday to study the issue.

“They are going to see more things happening and hear more things happening in the park,” Parker said. “But at the same time, it allows us to create a quieter, more natural area on the south side of the park, which we also desperately need in this really big urban area. I understand why they don’t want to see the changes, but the changes are definitely in the best interest of the park, and they’re in the best interest of park users.”

Look at big picture

Councilman Mike Laster tried to amend the plan to specify that the money raised for Memorial Park be matched with private donations raised to improve parks in each of the 11 council districts citywide.

“We clearly have invested in an arc of these parks that are in the center part of the city, in the wealthiest part of the city,” he said, noting investments in Buffalo Bayou Park, Discovery Green, Market Square Park and others. “How do we share and equalize funding for parks across the city?”

Parker ruled Laster’s amendment out of order, however, because it dealt with funding and not with the park plan. She noted that most of the city’s Bayou Greenways trails investments are occurring outside the 610 Loop, as have recent investments in a new skate park in north Houston and other projects.

“Council members need to take a step back and look at the big picture,” Parker said after the meeting. “A destination park is a destination park and has to be considered separately.”