After surviving a seemingly endless public input meeting on Tuesday, on Wednesday morning the Houston City Council voted unanimously to approve the new Memorial Park Conservancy Master Plan.
The Memorial Park Conservancy has been working on this plan for months in response to the devastation caused by the drought and the damage from Hurricane Ike. It's unclear what the plan will ultimately cost -- as was brought up repeatedly during the Tuesday public comment meeting -- but the master plan, now that it has been approved by the city council, will act as a rough guide fro how the park will be rearranged and developed over the next 20 years.
Before they actually voted, Councilman Mike Laster referred back to some of the issues raised by the speakers on Tuesday when he proposed that the city council add a centennial fund for Memorial Park, one that would be used to both fund the master plan and any centennial celebrations for the park. Laster then talked about his concerns that this master plan will pull all philanthropic impulses into this one park at the expense of other parks that need improvements. "If you look at this park it is in the richest part of the city and sometimes the richest people will live in the richest part of the city but I think those philanthropists could be interested in helping other parks in other areas of the city if they are given the option," Laster said.
Mayor Annise Parker calmly listened but then told Laster that the council was meeting to discuss the Memorial Park Conservancy Master Plan, not funding. "I understand your desire to focus more on the other city parks," Parker told Laster. "But this is not a funding plan. This is a master plan and I have to rule this discussion out of order. You need to take this to the quality of life committee meeting." Laster said he would.
Councilwoman Brenda Stardig spoke up right after, noting that there are parks that are basically glorified tracts of land in her district that could be real parks but those areas don't receive the funding or attention that goes to anything concerning Memorial Park. "There's 200 acres at Inwood just sitting there," she told the council. "Sometimes if you don't ask , you don't get anywhere, as my colleague [Laster] has pointed out, so I'm going to make that ask and see if donors respond." Again Parker told Stardig that she understood where she was coming from but that Stardig's discussion is out of order.
Over the course of the meeting Parker noted that the $120 million in funding from Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) isn't guaranteed, just like the total cost of about $220 million over the next 20 years of restructuring the park is just an estimate, and not one that anyone -- either Memorial Park Conservancy executive director Shellye Arnold or Parker -- will firmly commit to. The master plan is only a plan, and nothing about that plan, from the parking to the location of the trails, the ball fields and the land bridge, is going to be the final word on the subject.
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"Mayor I think a lot of folks don't understand that this is just a plan, not a funding mechanism. It's really like a dream," Councilman Michael Kubosh said before asking intently about parking (there will be 30 percent more parking), about the roads (one of them will be moved and a bike trail will be put in), the walking trails (the biggest one will be a land bridge connecting over Memorial Drive so that park users will be able to walk the park without having to get near the road.)
Councilman Robert Gallegos brought up the ball fields. (The subject that has been a point of vigorous concern for Jorge Figueroa, a longtime user of the park who has been fiercely lobbying about the future of the fields since he learned of this new master plan. Previously, Figueroa opposed the 2003 master plan. He says that the Memorial Park Conservancy tried to get rid of the ball fields then, but Arnold says that's not what the records show.) Gallegos heard Figueroa on Tuesday ans brought the issue up on Wednesday. In the new master plan the ball fields will be moved from the corner of park anD nestled along I-10. "What would TexDot have to do if they wanted to expand their roads into the fields," Gallegos asked. It was explained that parks are protected and it's not easy the Texas Department of Transportation to take park land.
Mayor pro tem Ed Gonzalez also talked about the ball fields. He said that he's excited about the plans, but that he wants to make sure that his constituents who use those fields are being considered. Gonzalez then went on to explain that Arnold reassured him the master plan hasn't overlooked the people who use the ball fields.
But ultimately, once the city council members had batted the issue around like a ball, they settled down and voted to approve the master plan. It's unclear what it will cost or what the final version of the park will look like, but there is now a city council-approved plan.