Major Park Makeover

Redoing Memorial Park: New $100 million plan to change Houston's most important green space forever

Making over Memorial Park: New $100 million plan to change Houston

Rendering of proposed Land Bridge at Memorial Park (aerial view); Rendering courtesy of Nelson Byrd Woltz September 2014
Aerial view rendering of proposed Land Bridge at Memorial Park. Rendering courtesy of Nelson Byrd Woltz
6 - Rendering of proposed Land Bridge at Memorial Park (perspective from Memorial Drive); Rendering courtesy of Nelson Byrd Woltz
Rendering of proposed Land Bridge at Memorial Park with the perspective from Memorial Drive leading to the tunnels. Rendering courtesy of Nelson Byrd Woltz
Thomas Woltz, Nelson Byrd Woltz principal,
Thomas Woltz, principal landscape architect at Nelson Byrd Woltz. Photo by Barbara Kuntz
The vision for Memorial Park is one of contiguous spaces; Image courtesy of Lee Lupher
The vision for Memorial Park is one of contiguous spaces. Image courtesy of Lee Lupher
Memorial Parks Master Plan Open House
Memorial Park today. Photo by Logan Sebastian Beck
News_Memorial Park_dead trees_field
The drought of 2013 left Memorial Park almost barren of trees. Photo by Shelby Hodge
Prior to 1900, the land now known as Memorial Park was untouched; Source 1915 USFS Topographic Map
Prior to 1900, the land now known as Memorial Park was untouched. USFS Topographic Map
Memorial Park re-do October 2013 Circa 1917_ Entrance to Camp Logan, WWI training camp, the original site of Memorial Park
Entrance to Camp Logan, WWI training camp, the original site of Memorial Park, circa 1917. Photo courtesy of Memorial Park Conservancy
Image of Memorial Park Grasslands Circa 1938 as cited in An Ecological Study in Memorial Park by Marguerite Key Fitzgerald
Image of Memorial Park grasslands circa 1938 as cited in An Ecological Study in Memorial Park by Marguerite Key Fitzgerald. Photo by Marguerite Key Fitzgerald
Image of Memorial Park Woodlands Circa 1938 as cited in An Ecological Study in Memorial Park by Marguerite Key Fitzgerald
Image of Memorial Park woodlands circa 1938 as cited in An Ecological Study in Memorial Park by Marguerite Key Fitzgerald. Photo by Marguerite Key Fitzgerald
Rendering of proposed Land Bridge at Memorial Park (aerial view); Rendering courtesy of Nelson Byrd Woltz September 2014
6 - Rendering of proposed Land Bridge at Memorial Park (perspective from Memorial Drive); Rendering courtesy of Nelson Byrd Woltz
Thomas Woltz, Nelson Byrd Woltz principal,
The vision for Memorial Park is one of contiguous spaces; Image courtesy of Lee Lupher
Memorial Parks Master Plan Open House
News_Memorial Park_dead trees_field
Prior to 1900, the land now known as Memorial Park was untouched; Source 1915 USFS Topographic Map
Memorial Park re-do October 2013 Circa 1917_ Entrance to Camp Logan, WWI training camp, the original site of Memorial Park
Image of Memorial Park Grasslands Circa 1938 as cited in An Ecological Study in Memorial Park by Marguerite Key Fitzgerald
Image of Memorial Park Woodlands Circa 1938 as cited in An Ecological Study in Memorial Park by Marguerite Key Fitzgerald

A proposed grass- and tree-covered land bridge spanning about 800 feet across Memorial Drive designed to reconnect Memorial Park's north and south sections is just one highlight in the long-range plans to bring cohesiveness — ecological, social and historical — to the city's largest designated green space.

Thomas Woltz, principal with Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, outlined the master plan for Memorial Park at a press event Thursday with displays of maps, photographs, drawings and rendered solutions on view, all the result of months' worth of research. The final design is to go before the Houston City Council for consideration most likely in April, with public hearings for comments to be scheduled in the near future.

Woltz is leading the effort to vivify the grounds that were ravaged by Hurricane Ike in 2008 and by the droughts that have plagued Texas in recent years. He has surrounded himself with a team of 70-plus local ecology, history, archaeology, plant biology and more experts to assist in the massive undertaking.

 "It's a park divided now, dissected into 24 fragments by roads, parking and recreational areas. And we want to bridge those parts.” 

With the extensive analysis stage just complete, Woltz spoke to CultureMap about the major goals within the master plan.

Infrastructure
Woltz says the first goal in re-energizing Memorial Park is to update and strengthen its infrastructure. "Once we get the bones in place, the other components can be added and even moved about, until all is synchronized. It's a park divided now, dissected into 24 fragments by roads, parking and recreational areas. And we want to bridge those parts.”

Infrastructure includes addressing water management, he says, as more than 58 million gallons of water are now used to irrigate park grounds, mainly the golf course. “While that water is free from the city,” he says, “we are looking into more natural methods to harvest water, such as through natural wetlands that were once found in the area.”

Ecology
Woltz recalls the destruction — and the discoveries — of the drought that devastated the trees in Memorial Park and throughout Houston. "We learned that the park had become non-resiliant with non-native plants. A thicket is not native to Houston. Before, it was savannah, wetlands and woodlands. Our goal it to make it a resilient, strong ecology that will last for years with proper management."

History
Incorporated into the overall plan is also recognition of the park's history, particularly the World War I-era Camp Logan training facility that was located in Memorial Park from 1917-1919, and the early inhabitants, the Native American Karankawas.

"The park, right now, hides its history," Woltz says. "We want to find ways to make that visible with a tribute of some kind to the soldiers and to its earliest inhabitants. We need to look at the past to better understand the future."

Human Interaction
Woltz says he sees parks as more than just open spaces, but rather fundamental environments with presences as impactful as buildings. “One of the things that impresses me most is the scale of this project,” he says. “The project shows us the healing power and need by humans for the environment. We rebuild and take care of it, and we are rebuilding and taking care of ourselves."

Future
The landscape architect sees Memorial Park as a model project for similar endeavors.

"The regeneration project for Memorial Park could be the vanguard of development or redevelopment for city parks across the United States. And I think it will become just that.”

Background
The Houston Parks and Recreation Department began in 2011 to begin developing a long-term forestry management plan for the park, with the ongoing drought the driving force behind the initiative. In May 2013, the Uptown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone boundary was expanded to include Memorial Park, and in September that same year, the privately funded Memorial Park Conservancy selected Nelson Byrd Woltz to oversee the major undertaking to restore this 1,500-acre escape that attracts 4 million residents each year.

Funding for the project, estimated to cost upwards of $100 million and take as long as 20 years, is coming from the three entities.

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