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Shellye Arnold

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.

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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?

Like a bridge over Memorial Park

Some fascinating ideas for ensuring the long-term health of Memorial Park.

Today Memorial Park is a land divided.

The city’s premiere park stretches across 1,500 acres, almost twice as large as New York’s Central Park. But to Thomas Woltz of the internationally renowned landscape architecture firm Nelson Byrd Woltz, it feels much smaller. Over time the land has been divided into 24 tracts by roads, an elevated railroad, a power easement and recreational amenities.

That could change during the next 20 years if a long-range master plan being proposed by Woltz’s firm is adopted next spring by the Houston City Council. Hired in 2013 by the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, the Uptown Houston tax increment reinvestment zone and the privately funded Memorial Park Conservancy, the firm is nearly three months into a 10-month design process.

At a public meeting Wednesday, Woltz presented his firm’s initial design strategies and the reasoning behind them – ideas 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 shared 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. He’s 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.”

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Project director Sarah Newbery of Uptown Houston said the Uptown Houston TIRZ is committed to spending $100 million to $150 million on the restoration projects and infrastructure; a figure that could change with property values. Memorial Park Conservancy executive director Shellye Arnold said her group 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.”

Woltz expects to reveal designs that incorporate Camp Logan remnants at the next public meeting on Nov. 10.

“We’re looking for ways the landscape could function as a memorial to the soldiers and maybe even reveal some of the grid,” he said.

A Jan. 12 meeting is titled “Spaces and Places: How Will It Look?” The final March 9 meeting promises a more comprehensive revealing of the plan.

See here, here, and here for some background. The TIRZ in question is also the one helping to fund the Uptown BRT line. Some more material from the architect is here. What do you think about this? Link via Swamplot.

Looking forward on Memorial Park

Meet Shellye Arnold, the new Executive Director of the Memorial Park Conservancy.

Shellye Arnold

There is no doubt that it is a pivotal moment for the 89-year old-park. Decimated by the drought of 2011, Memorial Park lost thousands of trees. The conservancy – whose stated mission is to “restore, preserve and enhance Memorial Park for the enjoyment of all Houstonians, today and tomorrow” – has a lot of work to do.

Arnold brings an exceptional skill set to the task. Her expertise in strategic planning, team building and leadership was honed over a 20-year career at Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard, Compaq Computer Corporation and the management consulting firm, McKinsey & Company.

Previous to accepting the position with the conservancy, Arnold volunteered her time as both a writer and a speaker for the Parks by You Parks Bond Initiative, which passed in November 2012, providing $166 million in parks funding.

Jim Porter, board chair of the Memorial Park Conservancy and a certified Texas naturalist, feels confident that they have the right person for the job.

“Shellye has a history of getting things done and delivering results,” he said.

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She notes that it was human intervention that uniformly forested Memorial Park with pine trees so heavily to begin with and that even before the drought, many of the park’s trees were already approaching their life expectancy.

About 15,000 new trees have been planted thus far. But there is also a need to restore and enhance the natural balance of the park on a larger scale. As Arnold notes, “you can’t water a forest.”

The diversity of Memorial Park with its three distinct eco-systems – East Texas Piney Woods, Post Oak Savanna and Coastal Prairie – will help sustain it. Clearing out non-invasive plants, which compete for water and sunlight, and planting native grasses are some of the items which could help with the restoration.

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Arnold is supportive of the TIRZ proposal, in part because Mayor Parker is clear that Memorial Park will not be commercialized. It will remain a park, which is in line with the Hogg family stipulations when they made the land available to the city of Houston.

She sees potential down the road for linking the park to Uptown for cyclists. There has also been feedback about connecting Memorial Park to Buffalo Bayou, thereby giving people more access to the 150 mile trail system that is being completed through the Parks Bond Initiative.

Making those connections would be awesome, and very useful. Wouldn’t it be nice to have ways to get to Memorial Park that don’t involve driving? Throw in the Uptown BRT line and hopefully someday the University Line, and you’ve greatly expanded the bike-to-the-park range. That’s down the line, to be sure, but this is a long-term project. KUHF has more on what is being considered for the park.

Shellye Arnold is executive director of the Memorial Park Conservancy, a group that works with the Houston Parks Department to fundraise for the park. Driving west on Woodway, she pulls over to a spot where the park meets Buffalo Bayou and points out an area where TIRZ 16 money is already allocated for an erosion project.

“We’re looking at a big pipe that carries water down into the bayou. And what happens with the water is that it causes erosion, it causes the land around it to erode into the bayou itself. And over time, it eats and eats away at the bayou, so what we’re looking at is probably hundreds of feet of erosion from the banks of the bayou that has been caused over years of time.”

As for what else the money might do, nobody knows for sure because the master plan hasn’t been developed yet. As Arnold points out, there’s only a plan to make a plan.

“There are things that people have expressed that they’d like to do. There are many people that would like to put a prairie on the utility easement area. That’s a great example. Those are things that could be considered in the context of a master planning process, which will take, you know, will take some time.”

Council will vote on the TIRZ next week, on Wednesday. We don’t need to have a master plan by then, but some kind of vision or outline would be nice.