News | Design for Memorial Park proposal bridges history and ecology
September 17, 2014
By Molly Glentzer | Houston Chronicle
Memorial Park could dramatically change if a long-range master plan being proposed is adopted by Houston City Council.
The long-range plan was commissioned by the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, the Uptown Houston tax increment reinvestment zone and the privately-funded Memorial Park Conservancy. The internationally-renowned landscape architecture firm Nelson Byrd Woltz is nearly three months into a 10-month design process, and should have the master plan complete by April, when it would go before the council for a vote.
The city's premiere park stretches across 1,500 acres, almost twice as large as New York's Central Park. But to Thomas Woltz, Nelson Byrd Woltz principal, it feels much smaller. Over time the land has been divided into 24 tracts by roads, railroads and recreational amenities.
At a public meeting Wednesday, Woltz presented his firm's initial design strategies and the reasoning behind them - which were driven by previous public input and a year's research by a team of about 70 local experts in fields like soil science, ecology, history and archaeology.
He used maps, drawings and aerial views to explain the park's ecological and cultural histories, also unveiling a dramatic solution to one of the landscape's biggest problems. Woltz is proposing a grass- and tree-covered land bridge, 800 feet long, that would rise gently across Memorial Drive, over a tunnel, to reconnect the park's north and south sides.
While it's not realistic to remove the street, which is crucial to Houston's traffic circulation, the land bridge is "a kind of triumph ... the park wins," Woltz said.
The current pedestrian bridge on the park's western side, completed in 2009, was an important first gesture toward stitching the park's landscape back together, Woltz said. "This land bridge builds on that beginning at a much larger scale."
That's just the most visible aspect of a plan that would also restore the damaged ecology, enhance recreational amenities and optimize the park's potential to be what he calls a "performative" landscape. A natural pond system, for example, could be used to irrigate the golf course, saving 68 million gallons of water a year.
Woltz envisions a mixed landscape of savannah, wetlands and prairie, more like what the Karankawas experienced when they lived in the area centuries ago. And he would add a tribute to the soldiers of Camp Logan, the World War I training camp that was there from 1917 to 1919. Those plans will be revealed at the next public meeting on Nov. 10.
The park's recreational amenities also would be improved. High-activity areas currently on the park's south side could be relocated within the park to protect the least-disturbed, fragile ecologies along the bayou - an area Woltz sees as a preserve for people on foot or on bikes.
The Uptown Houston TIRZ is committed to spending $100 to $150 million on the restoration projects and infrastructure, project director Sarah Newbery said. Memorial Park Conservancy is studying how much it can raise in the next 10 or 20 years toward the effort.
"But we think of this in terms of a 100-year or 75-year plan. We'll execute large parts of it in the next three to 15 years; but there can be a road map for the next generation as well," conservancy executive director Shellye Arnold said.