What’s the Rush?
Full Council to Consider Unfinished $3.2 Million Plan Wednesday, April 1
Public Comments to Council on Tuesday, March 31
March, 29, 2015
Update Monday, March 30: Council Member Steve Costello’s office has responded that as a member of the board of directors of the Memorial Park Conservancy, he will recuse himself from voting on the proposed master plan.
Public comments were limited to two minutes due to the large number of people signed up to speak on the city’s proposed master plan to spend $200-300 million on Memorial Park. A few of the nine members of the council’s Quality of Life Committee, chaired by Ellen Cohen, met last Wednesday afternoon to hear Parks Director Joe Turner and landscape architect Thomas Woltz present the ambitious, vague, and costly master plan for the 1500-acre-plus woodland park.
Dozens of people spoke in favor of the plan. Most of them were members of the board of or connected to the Memorial Park Conservancy, and many of them, users of the park, gave moving testimony about their reasons for joining the conservancy: the devastating impact of the 2011 drought, which has killed more than half the trees in the park.
But there were also strong critics of the unfinished $3.2 million proposal, which so far does not seem to be an actual written plan specifically identifying and prioritizing what should be done and when, two key elements for a successful master plan, according to a recent report on urban park conservancies from the Trust for Public Land.
A large contingent of critics were residents or property owners adjoining the park concerned about the increase in traffic, noise, lights, and people using the park. A smaller group of conservationists also expressed concern about the increase in traffic and parking, the loss of trees and natural areas, the expense, inappropriate planting plans, and lack of detail about costs and maintenance. It was suggested that new facilities be placed instead in new parkland purchased with some of the millions of public dollars to be used for the project.
The new master plan proposes to increase parking by thirty percent. However, the 2004 master plan for the park, much of which has never been carried out, identified parking lots as “undesirable intrusions on the natural landscape” and recommended “no net change to the quantity of daily use parking spaces” in the park. To manage peak demand, the 2004 plan recommended the use of shuttles and the construction of “an ‘over-flow only’ parking using environmentally sensitive construction techniques along the rail and power line right of way.”
Among other things, the 2004 master plan also sensibly recommended moving the parks department‘s large maintenance area out of the park. The maintenance yard and facilities currently occupy an extensive section of woodland on the southeastern side of the park.
In addition, that previous master plan recommended opening up and creating nature trails and a canoe launch in the still-closed former Archery Range off Woodway west of Loop 610. This lovely bayou woodlands area remains closed to the public until the new master planners make a new decision what to do with it, according to the parks department and a spokesperson for the Uptown TIRZ 16, which in 2013 incorporated Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary into its boundaries. The 2014-15 master plan again proposes a canoe launch (where a canoe launch had long been) and building a building for boat building with a parking lot in what is now woods.
Other than the massive $1.36 million drainage outfall constructed in the park at the site of the above-mentioned former boat launch downstream of the Woodway Bridge, it would appear that few if any of the 2004 plan’s recommendations for rectifying damaging drainage and erosion problems from impermeable surfaces such as roadways and parking and along trails have been carried out. The 2004 plan was financed with $370,000 in private funds.
The ninety-year-old park receives 3.246 million visitors per year, making it the thirty-sixth most visited park in the country, although Houston’s Hermann Park downtown, one-third the size, gets 5.4 million visitors annually, ranking it fifteenth in the country.
But Memorial Park, with large areas of forest despite the drought, including riparian forest along Buffalo Bayou and its ravines on the southern boundary of the park, was always intended to be a “natural” park offering Houstonians an experience of something like wilderness in the middle of the city. Ima Hogg, whose family donated the land for the park at cost, wrote in 1962 of her regret that some 500 acres were used to build the golf course. She expressed “the hope that … all concerned will make every provision in the future to prevent any further invasion of the only remaining large park area in the heart of Houston.”
The park also has playing fields, tennis courts, an outdoor swimming pool, a fitness center, and cycling tracks, in addition to running, biking, and hiking trails.
Speaking in One Voice
The Memorial Park Conservancy is a nonprofit founded in 2000 as successor to the informal group of friends of Ima Hogg who promised to continue to protect the park. The conservancy’s bylaws include the description of its purpose to “carry out the intent of the Hogg Family.” This year board members, who serve in large part to raise money for the park, were also asked to sign a document promising that they would “speak in one voice outside of the organization” and acknowledging a “duty of loyalty” to the conservancy.
Council member Steve Costello, who sits on the Quality of Life Committee, is a member of the board of directors and a past chair of the conservancy. An email to Costello’s office inquiring whether he had signed the “loyalty oath” and if he planned to recuse himself from voting on the proposed master plan has not yet received a response. (Update Monday, March 30: Costello’s office has now responded that as a member of the board of directors of the Conservancy, he will recuse himself.)
Cohen represents District C, which includes Memorial Park, and sits on the advisory board of the conservancy. Council member Oliver Pennington represents District G, which includes that former Archery Range portion of the park west of Loop 610.
The only member of the conservancy’s board of directors to criticize the plan was Frank Smith, who is also the president of the board of Save Buffalo Bayou. Smith, 93, the elder statesman of the city’s conservation community, personally promised Ima Hogg that he would always protect the park. He is one of only two remaining active lifetime members of the conservancy board. He rose to speak towards the end of the committee meeting and said that he had four points to make. He had just made two when the timer sounded.
“Your time is up,” interrupted committee chair Cohen, who had previously asked questions of proponents of the plan, extending their time to speak.
Not one of the other remaining council members asked to hear the rest of Smith’s points. Not Costello, who is personally acquainted with Smith and serves on the conservancy board with him, not David Robinson, an architect and vice-chair of the committee, and not Jack Christie.
Here are Frank Smith’s four objections to the proposed master plan:
1. The proposal is ridiculously costly in a city with financial problems.
2. The hill and land bridge over Memorial Drive and the tunnels through it are expensive and unnatural.
3. Further west, moving Memorial Drive is too expensive and will cause the loss of hundreds of trees.
4. The changes do not respect the wishes of Miss Ima Hogg, who wanted the park to remain natural.
What’s the Rush?
The Houston City Council will consider approving the proposed master plan at its meeting Wednesday, April 1, at 9 a.m. The public will have an opportunity to speak to the council about the project on Tuesday, March 31, at 1:30 p.m.
To sign up to speak to city council on Tuesday, call 832-393-1100 or go to the Office of the City Secretary, City Hall Annex, Public Level at least thirty minutes prior to the scheduled public session shown on the agenda.
The council meets in council chambers on the second floor of City Hall, 901 Bagby.