City Council Hears Last Public Input on Memorial Park's Master Plan

Some people love the Memorial Park Conservancy's master plan that will guide how the park will evolve over the next 20 years and some people hate it. Since the Houston City Council is set to vote on the plan at 9 a.m. Wednesday morning, the council heard from both sides during the final public comment phase on Tuesday afternoon.

Officials at Memorial Park Conservancy say that they decided to come up with a new master plan -- one that would replace the plan that was decided on over a decade ago -- due to the changes in the park caused by the drought that killed half the trees and the damage from Hurricane Ike.This new master plan is acting as a sort of expansion of the old one that was put together in 2003. The old master plan mentioned the need to improve park drainage, infrastructure and conservation but it didn't actually manage to accomplish all of these goals. The new master plan will reshape the park in all kinds of ways, doing everything from adding parking to moving the ball fields and adding in land bridges to better connect the park for pedestrians.

So many people wanted to speak Tuesday that the commenters were limited to one minute each. Some got to spend a little more time in front of the council if council members asked questions, but most were being moved on through after making their statement. (The meeting still lasted for more than two hours.)

The first half of public commenters was almost entirely comprised of Memorial Park Conservancy volunteers, board members and supporters who spoke in glowing terms about their "strong support" for the master plan and the quest to save Memorial Park. They mentioned the 20 public meetings that Memorial Park Conservancy has held to gather information and input from various groups about the changes coming to the park. Becky Houston noted that some people always have reservations about making changes to Houston's parks, but said that this project will change Memorial Park for the better. "It's become abundantly clear that change is always for the better when it comes to our parks," she said.

The new plan calls for a lot of rearranging of the park. The ball fields will be shifted from the edge of the park over into an eastern corner -- a move that has Jorge Figueroa suspicious since he believes that the Memorial Park Conservancy is more focused on runners and bikers and not interested in catering to the ball playing crowd. Figueroa told the council that he believes that while the plan is being sold as an effort to save the park, that's not what it's really about. "Like the other plan [from 2003] it's more towards the special groups, the runners and the bikers, and the Conservancy projects than it is about saving the park," Figueroa told the council. He didn't go into detail but he left council members a hard copy of his concern that the master plan will ultimately remove the ball fields from Memorial Park. (Arnold has stated before that this is not the Memorial Park Conservancy's intention.)

Susan Chadwick, director of Save Buffalo Bayou, talked about the drought and mentioned that she's never been able to understand why the city didn't do more to save the trees. (This statement caused Mayor Annise Parker to comment afterward that the city could not have done anything to save the trees. "There's not enough water in the state to have watered all those trees," Parker said.) Chadwick went on to point out that despite all the talk about how Memorial Park needs help because of the number of trees that died during the drought, the master plan isn't very tree-centric. "What we have is a plan with less trees," she said.

Homeowners from the neighborhoods that line Memorial Park also expressed their concerns over the master plan and whether the Memorial Park Conservancy's plan to add more parking -- about 2,900 parking spots total -- and to lay out the park so that it is better connected and more easy to navigate will make traffic in the neighborhoods worse.

Residents of Camp Logan and Crestwood both pointed out that the traffic studies conducted by the Memorial Park Conservancy for the master plan didn't include their neighborhoods. "There's been no traffic study, no archaeological study and our input has been rejected," Mike Van Dusen, president of the Crestwood Civic Club, said. Moreover, he told the council, they've been told that the plans are already in place and can't be changed whenever they've tried to give some input to the Memorial Park Conservancy. "After presenting input for 18 months without recognizable results, we're not optimistic about changes."

But things got interesting when someone in the middle of the meeting noted that there's not even a firm estimate on what the master plan will actually cost. Mayor Parker shut the first speaker down on this by noting that none of the details of the master plan, including the price, are set in stone.

However, the question of cost came back up when Memorial Park Conservancy executive director Shellye Arnold had her minute before the council. Councilman Mike Laster asked Arnold how much the plan would cost. When she wouldn't commit to a number, he noted that just a few weeks ago she had estimated the master plan would cost about $220 million. Arnold explained that they aren't exactly sure how much the plan will ultimately cost or what the final version of the park post-master plan will look like. Arnold said they plan on getting philanthropists to pay for sections of the park and between that and the expected evolution of the master plan itself it's unclear exactly what the park will look like or how much it will cost. "It's a plan, so we don't know exactly what will be in it," she said.

Over the course of the afternoon, some speakers used their time to ask the council to delay the scheduled vote on the master plan. "Y'all are about to vote on something that isn't even complete. We don't even know how much it's going to cost. We don't even know what it will actually do," Jan Cobler told the council as she urged them to hold off on the vote. Parker eventually piped in with another reminder that this is only a plan and thus much of it is still uncertain. "It's not going to cost anything if we choose not to finish it," Parker said after another speaker brought up the question of cost. "Again, it's a planning process."

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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray