The Memorial Park Conservancy is finishing up gathering public input on the new master plan that will govern how the park evolves over the next 20 years, but not everyone is thrilled with the changes the conservancy is pitching.
While the officials with the Memorial Park Conservancy say these changes are for the good of the park, some critics say the plan is just something cooked up by the Memorial Park Conservancy to design the park the way they see fit. "They don't own the park. You own the park and we own the park, but they think they own it. They justify everything they do. They make it sound good," Jorge Figueroa, an emphatic critic of the master plan, says.
The master plan will be enacted over a 20-year period and by the time it's done it will have reshaped the park in a lot of ways. Shellye Arnold, executive director of the Memorial Park Conservancy, says that these changes will help the park continue to evolve and thrive even as the city continues to grow up around it.
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, Arnold says.
Arnold says that the master plan is necessary because of what Memorial Park has been through over the past decade during which the park endured a hurricane and a devastating drought that changed the its needs. Plus, the Great Recession didn't help matters, she says. "We've had less investment in the park and declining infrastructure," she says. "Everyone has been doing the best they can with what they have but the reality is they've had less and less to work with. We collectively feel that more needs to be done. This is a nationally recognized park, it's bigger than Central Park and it's a magical place. We don't need to settle with how things are now." These things, along with increased demands on the park, have made a new master plan necessary, Arnold says.
In that vein the master plan will do a lot of rearranging of the park, she says. There are plans to add miles of bike riding, running and horseback riding trails through the park. There are also plans to section off certain areas and allow them to grow wild and undisturbed while the plans are also focused on making it easier to access areas that currently can't be reached by most of the public. As things stand now, Arnold says, the park is a confusing setup of winding roads that are difficult to navigate and areas that, while technically open to the public, are almost completely unreachable.
"We're trying to offer a better habitat and wildlife experience. The park is twice the size of Central Park but it feels much smaller, so we're trying to stitch the park together," Arnold says. To accomplish this they want to move Memorial Drive over, move the ball fields so that they're all in the same area and build a land bridge among other things. "The land bridge is not natural, but it is environmentally friendly," she says.
However, there are some who have concerns about how all these changes will actually be accomplished. Frank Smith, one of the founding members of the Memorial Park Conservancy and a dedicated Houston environmentalist, says he understands that the park needs to be updated in some ways, but is worried about the approach that the conservancy is taking.
Memorial Park is about 1,500 acres of fairly uncultivated land smack in the middle of Houston. The park started out as a part of Camp Logan, a World War I-era training camp. Once the camp was closed there were suggestions to turn it into a public park. That was when the Hogg family stepped in, bought the land and sold it to the city at cost with the stipulation that it only ever be used "for park purposes only."
If the city ever did anything un-park-like with Memorial, the whole thing would revert back to the Hoggs. Over the following years, before the Memorial Park Conservancy was created, Ima Hogg acted as champion of the park -- at one point city officials wanted to drill for oil and at another they were thinking it was a prime spot for the Astrodome -- until the Memorial Park Conservancy was set up. Smith is concerned that the natural beauty of the park that Ima Hogg spent years protecting will be needlessly altered and ruined.
For example, the designers hired to do the job of renovating the park want to build a man-made hill to create a land bridge connecting two areas of the park. Arnold says that the bridge will help pedestrians navigate the park more easily and will also be good for wildlife. Smith has his doubts. "It will be a 30-foot-high hill that will include cutting down hundreds and hundreds of trees, and they're going to put tunnels under it and run Memorial Drive through it," Smith explains. "I'm particularly concerned because Ima Hogg persuaded her brothers to sell the land to the city because she wanted to keep it natural and she wanted it left as much like itself as possible. I don't see how building that hill is doing that."
Smith is also worried about the plans to reroute Memorial Drive. "On the west side of the railroad track, they're planning to reroute Memorial Drive to make it longer and curvier, and they'll cut down hundreds and hundreds of trees to do it. And apparently, they're going to dig up and throw away that beautifully curved part of Memorial drive that more than 10,000 people drive on every day and that is worth millions of dollars, and I don't see why," Smith says.
The plans to move the roads around have also got Jorge Figueroa up in arms. Figueroa has been devoted to Memorial Park for 49 years, ever since he started playing soccer on the soccer fields on the far north side of the park. When the last master plan was created, it originally held plans to move the soccer fields. Back then, as the Houston Press reported at the time, Figueroa and a group got together and came out in such strong opposition to the plans -- which Figueroa interpreted as a move to try and discourage soccer enthusiasts, many of them Hispanic, from hanging around the park -- that the Memorial Park Conservancy scrapped moving the fields. Now, however, they want to move those fields again to allow them to reroute the road.
"Look at these trees," Figueroa says, pointing to the pines and a magnolia or two that line the edges of the soccer field. "I planted these trees when we needed more shade on the soccer fields and some of them are 20 years old. When the drought came I watered them. They are going to destroy them with this plan. Why move the fields?"
Figueroa says that he is worried that the master plan will see the ball fields they have destroyed before new ones are created and that this is a bid by the Memorial Park Conservancy to get rid of the ball fields and the people who play on them. "I've been too long in the park to believe what they're saying about the master plan and not see the damages they're going to do," he says.
Arnold says the park is for everyone and that their only intention is to make it a park that can serve the public well in the coming years. "We're advocating this as a park for all Houstonians. We're not decreasing the ball fields or taking any away. We're not adding ball fields either. There's a challenge with parking over there but we're moving them and improving them and they'll be better ball fields and we'll be better able to maintain and oversee them once we've grouped all of the fields together," she says.
Arnold says the goal is to put all the ball fields in one area so that they are easy to find and will offer sufficient parking. One of the main complaints from the public has been about how the park has a confusing setup, she says. Moving the fields and rerouting the roads is an attempt to answer that complaint.
Both Smith and Figueroa also voiced concerns over the price tag attached to the master plan. It's been kicked around that the master plan will cost about $200 million, according to the Houston Business Journal, but Arnold says there's no set price yet, because they're still planning. However, she says that they do have funding sources for the park. (The money is supposed to come from the Uptown Houston Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone along with funds raised by the Memorial Park Conservancy and private donations, HBJ reports.)
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"It's a lot to spend on one park," Smith says. "I can't imagine why they want to spend [all that] money to build hills and move Memorial Drive."
Figueroa is also skeptical on the money subject. "I tell you what will happen. They'll tell us they have the money and they'll close the ball fields and then something will happen and they'll say, 'Sorry, we ran out, so we'll have to do it next year,' and it won't ever get done," he says.
Arnold says that won't happen and reiterates that the intention of the master plan is to create a park that will serve everybody in Houston as well as possible. There's a final public meeting on the master plan tonight at 6:30 p.m. in the Brown Auditorium of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston at 1001 Bissonet.
However, Arnold underlined that this master plan won't be the final word on what happens with the park. "Moving forward a lot will be contingent on funding availability and sequencing the progress so that things happen in the right order. A lot of the order of thing will be determined by infrastructure and by funding availability. We'll be asking for public input at that point as well. People may think that after the master planning the master plan will be final, but it won't be. It will change."