Landscape architecture firm Nelson Byrd Woltz (NBW) has released initial ideas for a master plan to refashion Houston’s Memorial Park. At a public meeting in September, members of the firm presented a range of strategies developed over a year-long research effort that are aimed at restoring the drought-ravaged park’s ecology, improving its connectivity, and rearranging its recreational amenities.
Memorial Park lost more than 50 percent of its trees during the 2011 drought. As a result, the Houston Parks and Recreation Department along with the Uptown Houston Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) and the Memorial Park Conservancy hired NBW to conduct a study of the site’s ecology and develop a long-range plan to make it more resilient as well as better functioning.
Working with a local team of soil scientists and ecologists, NBW bored into the ground and discovered that the park was not always the thick-canopy, pine-hardwood-mix forest familiar to Houstonians. Biological matter and multiple layers of charcoal found in the park’s upper strata indicated to the team that, hundreds of years ago, before European settlement, the land on which the park sits was a post oak savannah that was managed with fire by the Karankawa and other Native American tribes who lived there to produce better hunting grounds.
Explaining to Houstonians that their park is not what they always thought it was and that restoring it to an essentially pre-historic ecology may be the most sustainable solution has proved challenging for the landscape architects. “We feel we need to understand the past of a piece of land in order to propose to have a great vision for the future of that piece of land,” said Thomas Woltz, principal at NBW. “One of the things that we have come up against is the public perception that Memorial Park is a pristine wilderness, or a last fragment of the Piney Woods; that it was in perfect health before the drought and just needs to be put back as it was. But it was clearly not a resilient ecology.”
Further research into the park’s history uncovered that it was used as grazing land by European settlers, was part of the Reinerman Family homestead, was the site of Camp Logan where soldiers were trained during World War I, and was purchased in 1924 by Will and Mike Hogg. The Hogg brothers sold the land to the city at cost for the purpose of creating a public park. The city named it Memorial Park in commemoration of those who perished in the Great War.
The Hoggs’ sister, Ima Hogg, assumed the role of guardian of the park and protected it from many encroachments over the years. Her efforts, however, did not stop the 1,500-acre tract of wilderness from being subdivided by roads and rail lines. “One of the observations we’ve made during this year of research is that Memorial park is divided into 24 separate parcels by roads and highways,” said Woltz. “They’re a real obstacle.”
The most notable of these obstacles is Memorial Drive, a high-speed thoroughfare that bisects the site from east to west. While in 2004 a narrow pedestrian bridge was erected over the road, NBW is proposing to create a more significant link between the two halves of the park by building two giant land bridges, one 800 feet wide, the other 400 feet wide, with an oculus in the middle. “You can imagine this broad swath of prairie and trees and shrubs going up and over the road,” said Woltz. “It would create nice connectivity and an incredible place from which to look out over the rest of the park.”
Other proposals at this phase of the design process include moving all of the park’s ball fields to the north end of the site, where there is already significant light and noise pollution from I-10, and preserving the southern half of the park, which borders on Buffalo Bayou, as an ecological restoration zone. NBW also plans to improve the park’s horseback riding facilities and provide separate bicycling tracks for high-speed, BMX, and family riding. The Memorial Park Golf Course, which was built as a Works Progress Administration project in 1934, will remain.
Funding for the master plan will come primarily from the Uptown Houston TIRZ, which has committed to spending between $100 and $150 million on the project, as well as some state and city money and fundraising by the Memorial Park Conservancy. The design phase ends in April 2015, at which point NBW will present the master plan to the Houston City Council for approval.