Joe Turner does not want more drawings gathering dust on a shelf.
Houston’s parks and recreation director inherited more than a few unrealized master plans when he was hired 10 years ago. Now he’s shepherding the most complex one yet, a detailed plan to restore, improve and maintain Memorial Park, the largest and most heavily used green space in the city.
Thomas Woltz describes his blueprint as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help save a green space three times bigger than New York’s Central Park. It doesn’t lack for ambition, restoring the ecosystem, shifting several ballfields to the park’s northeast corner, increasing parking spaces by 30 percent and creating two dramatic land bridges spanning Memorial Drive that reconnects the park’s major sections.
“We feel like we’ve enlarged the park without any land acquisition,” said Woltz, a partner in one of the nation’s premier landscape architecture firms, Nelson Byrd Woltz.
But it’s an election year, and vested interests around the park are taking aim at new ideas they don’t like. Tuesday is the last day for public comment on the plan.
Then, on Wednesday Mayor Annise Parker and City Council will be asked to vote on the plan, 18 months after they unanimously approved its creation. The plan was created through a partnership of Turner’s department, the Memorial Park Conservancy and the Uptown Houston tax increment reinvestment zone, which committed $3.2 million in financing for the plan.
The park is 91 years old, but Houstonians have been wringing their hands over it only since 2011, when drought decimated more than half of the trees that for decades had provided shade for runners, bicyclists, golfers, ballplayers and picnicking families. The plan is intended to bring that nature back in a way that will make the park vibrant for the next century, Turner said.
Woltz spent months developing it at large-scale public meetings and small-scale workshops with park users. He met with donors, wowed politicians and schmoozed members of the media, listening to ideas and trying to capture public sentiment as best he could. His firm also incorporated research from 70 local experts on such matters as soil ecology, hydrology, archaeology, history and traffic.
Last week, at a meeting of the City Council’s Quality of Life Committee, chairwoman Ellen Cohen, the District C Council member, listened as 32 residents took to the podium in the council chambers. Nineteen praised the plan. Thirteen said not so fast.
Nothing happens in Houston’s parks without council approval, whether it’s a donation from the conservancy for facilities, infrastructure covered by the TIRZ or a project done by public works.
Cohen thinks the plan provides an opportunity to make Memorial Park one of the most spectacular parks in the nation. She appreciates its respect for the park’s human and natural histories, and she’s impressed with how the planning team has responded to community concerns. The mayor reportedly supports the plan, too; she hugged Woltz the first time she heard it.
In addition to the land bridges, the plan’s most ambitious ideas involve infrastructure, including fire suppression and irrigation systems, stormwater management and a 30 percent increase in parking spaces. Those projects would happen first. They fall within the realm of the TIRZ, which by law can support infrastructure only with the tax money it collects.
In interviews with the Houston Chronicle, Woltz and Sarah Newbery, Uptown’s park project manager, have said the tab might be $300 million, but last week they were loath to use any figures.
Newbery said the plan simply tries to define goals for what the park should become over time, if and when funding become available to build the things it proposes. If council approves the plan, the team soon will address where and how to begin, calculate costs and put every item through “a measured and thoughtful public process,” she said.
Before the drought, people thought of the park as a forest because it looked dense and green. Swaths of its mixed woods were never manicured. But invasive plants slowly overtook the native savannahs, prairie and riparian forest that soil samples have proved were there first. By the time Hurricane Ike blew through in 2008 and 2011 brought the driest and second-hottest year on record, the land’s natural defenses were long gone.
In some ways, the drought did the park a favor, Woltz said.
“Now what we put back must be good stewardship, based on solid science,” he said. “Droughts, flood and horrible storms will come again. It’s the most responsible thing to put back a resilient landscape.”
That was the starting point for his design, which combines native ecologies, based on the topography. Woltz wants to preserve the least-disturbed areas — which also fared best during the drought — and consolidate high-activity areas elsewhere. He’s planned permeable trails for pedestrians and mountain bikers in the park’s south side, with boardwalks and overlooks to protect the sensitive bayou banks. Ballparks would move to a new sports complex at the northeast corner closer to Interstate 10, where the land is open.
The bridges are the plan’s centerpiece. Memorial Drive cuts through the park’s heart, and Loop 610 isolates its far west side. The sloping, 30-foot-high land bridges over the road would enable pedestrians, wheelchair users and wildlife to cross safely between north and south. Early renderings showed that feature as a single tunnel; now they’re split into two to let in more light, so drivers won’t feel submerged.
A survey of nearly 800 runners on the heavily used Seymour Lieberman Exer-Trail revealed that people from at least 134 ZIP codes visit the park.
“Parks are one of the last truly democratic places in America where people can be in a public place without feeling obligated to buy a cup of coffee,” Woltz said.
But democracy also invites debate, and there’s tension between different kinds of park users.
Members of the Save Buffalo Bayou organization want the park to be an urban wilderness. They criticize the master plan and all of its maps and renderings as “blinged-out.”
Homeowners in the adjacent Crestwood and Camp Logan subdivisions are concerned about increased traffic, crime and noise. The park has 2,226 parking spaces, and among people who said they wanted more were neighbors complaining about runners parking on the streets. The design increases the total parking to 2,909 spaces.
Woltz put most of the increase in modestly-sized lots, next to activity areas. But the biggest proposed lot landed on the Crestwood side of the park, not far from the planned sports complex. Last week, after meeting with residents, Woltz revised the design, redistributing more than half of the big lot’s spaces to other areas.
Crestwood/Glen Cove Civic Club president Mike VanDusen wasn’t satisfied.
“I don’t think our concerns are being met at all. They don’t care about anything other than what’s in the park boundaries,” VanDusen said.
Houston Area Road Runners Association president Joe Carey, who lives in Camp Logan, agrees parking issues need further study but, along with his group, strongly supports the plan. He’s trying to be practical.
“Runners, cyclists and pedestrians will go through the neighborhoods whether the plan is adopted or not,” Carey said.
Cohen feels the concerns are justified but says there will be ample time to address them.
“What we’re looking at is the original design. It’s not specific plans. There will be changes,” Cohen said.