What kind of Memorial Park do you want?

Council is set to vote on the Memorial Park Conservancy plan, whether you like it or not.

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.


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.

See here and here for some background on the plan; see here, here, and here for background on the TITZ part. The plan has its share of controversy, from the land bridge to the parking plan to the bayou erosion remediation. This Hair Balls post about yesterday’s Council public session covers a lot of the concerns. I’m generally favorable, though I share a lot of the concerns about the bayou. Be that as it may – you know what’s coming, right? – there’s nothing in this story to indicate what any of the Mayoral candidates think about this. Memorial Park is a crown jewel, and this is a huge undertaking that will happen on the next Mayor’s watch. Wouldn’t it be nice to know if they approve or disapprove, and what their concerns are?

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4 Responses to What kind of Memorial Park do you want?

  1. Steven Houston says:

    “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.”

    As a lifelong fan of writer George Orwell, let me point out to folks that the above is indicative of a mindset that has a very good idea of the actual costs but knows full well that support is tied to getting “someone else” to pay the tab. Even the chronicle editorial board, a bastion of fiscal conservatives when it comes to pensions, has suggested the plan to cost over a Billion dollars; “The idea itself of spending a nine-figure sum on a 20-year park plan shouldn’t be shocking.” which is just as much a budget buster for a single park as it is for those proposed bike trails that have only just started.

    With numbers bandied about in the $500 to 600 million dollar range for just the opening phases of the project, I wonder if even that billion covers the true costs, the need for extra ambulances or police (the perennial number of burglaries to cars is so high that even HPD admits most don’t bother reporting thefts, add that to those tens of thousands of cases they did not investigate for lack of manpower each year) clear already. The numbers keep getting bounced around and tied with other projects as a smokescreen, fluffed off to other projects when you inquire, to get as much support for the park while defusing the reality of the bill.

    So if the Chronicle staff want to compare such spending to some of the sport stadia of the area, by all means take advantage of that mindset and sell naming rights to the park, allow signs to be posted to help pay for it, and perhaps even offer a concessions contract if it can be done without all the politics and graft that took place with the airport equivalent but first, publicly publish on the front page EXACTLY what the projected costs are in total so people can make an informed decision.

  2. Brad M. says:

    How about we take the Astrodome, move it to Memorial Park, flip it over and….voila…we’ve got our indoor park.

    Problem solved and everyone is happy.

  3. Bill Daniels says:

    I guess all of Houston’s roads are in good shape now, so we can drop that $ 300M or so on one park. What percentage of Houston residents use that park on a regular basis? What percentage of Houston residents use the roads in Houston on a regular basis? I’m thinking our priorities are a bit skewed.

  4. Steven Houston says:

    Bill, they were touting the $300 million figure last year before half the stuff was added to the final plan, that is why the Chron is hinting the final plan will be in excess of a billion dollars. Allegedly, some Park supporters are getting email blasts (calling them “stakeholders”) telling them to scream the loudest on social media and to council members in order to not only get the measure passed (which it did by unanimous vote) but to make sure the “vision depicted in the final plan is carried out completely” rather than accept anything less than the whole thing.

    Those suggesting the improvements will be “free” are out of their minds given the ever expanding TIRZ draw on general funds needed to pay for roads and city provided services. I’m sure their marching orders include vilifying anyone that disagrees with any aspect of the “vision” will be painted as anti-park too, just a glance at some of the comments on the chron suggest that already. As far as who uses the park and how often, a very small percentage of the population uses it a great deal, the rest of us just have to pay for it.

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