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Thomas Woltz

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.