Sacrificing Magnificent Pines. For Whom?
Aug. 31, 2020
So construction has begun in Houston’s Memorial Park on the $70 million “land bridges” that will cover Memorial Drive, placing the busy six-lane roadway under two arching concrete tunnels. The tunnels will be covered with 300,000 pounds of dirt and planted like a prairie. In addition, numerous mature loblolly pines and other trees have been/will be removed on the north and south sides of Memorial Drive to make room for construction and extend restored prairie.
The purpose of the dramatic land bridges, according to its proponents, is to connect the north and south sides of the park, create a scenic attraction, and provide a safe passage for people and wildlife. But the question on many people’s minds is: who or what is going to go from the woods, ravines, Buffalo Bayou banks, and wetland prairie of the south side to the new PGA Tour golf course, jogging trail, and sports facilities on the north side? Or vice versa?
Major funders of the park’s 2015 Master Plan admit to rarely if ever having been on the south side of the park and claim that it is “hardly used.” But on any given day, any time of the day, the magical woods and trails of the south side are filled with the voices and presence of families with small children, lone hikers, couples, trail bikers, joggers, bird watchers, and others who treasure the rare experience of wild wooded ravines in the center of the city.
We can only hope that going forward this experience of nature will be preserved for the people of Houston, as the park was intended. We would be happy to accompany Mr. and Mrs. Kinder and Mr. John Breeding on a tour of these south side woods so that they can become better acquainted with them. Breeding, representing private Galleria-area real estate interests, is overseeing the expenditure of some $108 million in public funds on this $200-300 million master plan.
Note that there is already a modest Living Bridge that connects the north and sides of the park, as well as several drainage culverts under Woodway and Memorial for any coyotes, rabbits, bobcats, or possums that desire to roam discreetly on the new golf course or tennis courts. The Living Bridge is the partial result of the excellent, nature-sensitive, and unrealized 2004 Master Plan for the park.
Trees Don’t Belong There?
This felling of 60-80 year-old pines, along with other large trees, is on top of the hundreds of mature trees that have been removed for the golf course renovation, creation of a two-level golf practice facility, and construction of the Eastern Glades. Trees in Memorial Park are not protected by city code. (p. 43)
Despite claims that pines are not native to Memorial Park, or that the pines, hackberry and other trees “don’t belong” in the landscape south and north of Memorial Drive, Harris County is part of the Pineywoods, which extends west through Memorial (see Piney Point) ending in an ancient remnant of loblollies in the Lost Pines Forest of Bastrop County. Early surveys of the bayou from 1831 through 1848 (p. 42) as well as letters from a soldier at Camp Logan in 1917 describe the pines of what is now Memorial Park.
Some Good Things
Here are some good things about the land bridges:
1. Possibly will reduce traffic noise in the park from the road, though trees and bushes do that too.
2. Creates some new greenspace above the roadway.
3. Part of a plan to re-naturalize the south side of the park used for team sports, cycling, and picnicking. Those activities are being moved to new facilities north of Memorial Drive.
Some Bad Things
1. Costs a huge amount of money ($70 million). Some people call it a “waste.”
2. Do not appear to serve any useful purpose.
3. Buries a scenic drive inside darkened tunnels.
4. Kills a lot of magnificent trees.
Plans Unknown. Federal Permit Application Withdrawn
We don’t know exactly what the plans are for creating new prairie or wetlands or what will happen to the existing wetlands and tributary streams, as well as a 100-year-old Camp Logan-era channel on the south side of the park. The former site of Camp Logan in Memorial Park is a state antiquities landmark, and any work there requires a permit from the state historical commission.
Save Buffalo Bayou has filed a public information request with the City of Houston for the current plans. The Memorial Park Conservancy, the private nonprofit corporation that manages the public park, apparently now under the direction of Galleria developers and the Kinder Foundation, is required to hold public meetings on any substantial changes to the master plan, according to the 2018 agreement between the City, the Conservancy, and the Uptown Development Authority. (p. 31) We are not aware of any public meetings about the master plan since it was approved by city council in 2015.
In 2019, in preparation for construction of the land bridges, the Galleria-area Uptown Houston District applied for a federal permit from the Corps of Engineers to fill wetlands and dredge and armor streams in the park. However, that permit application was withdrawn because the applicant decided that wetlands would be avoided, according to a representative from the Corps’ Galveston District.
Who’s in Charge: Developers and Donors
In 2013 the boundaries of the Uptown Houston District were expanded to include Memorial Park. (p. 22) The District works with the Uptown Development Authority and the Uptown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) #16 (pp. 32-33) to fund and oversee implementation of the 2015 Memorial Park Master Plan, among other projects. The Uptown Development Authority and the Uptown TIRZ have the same nine unelected board members, all property owners or agents or employees of property owners within the district.
The Uptown TIRZ intends to spend more than $108 million in public funds for construction projects in Memorial Park through 2023. Uptown is also required to pay some $600,000 annually to maintain the park’s running center and greenspace. (p. 52)
“The Memorial Park Conservancy was once dominated by environmentalists—as opposed to commercial and sporting interests,” laments one long-time advocate for the park.
The Standards Committee Is Responsible
The entire master plan project is overseen by a Standards Committee set up by the 2018 agreement between the City of Houston, the Memorial Park Conservancy, and the Uptown Development Authority. (p. 32) Two members of the Uptown Development Authority board sit on the Standards Committee, currently real estate investor Steve Lerner and retired developer Louis Sklar; two from the “major donor,” Guy Hagstette and Nancy Kinder of the Kinder Foundation, which donated $70 million to the master plan project; the chief development officer for the City, Andy Icken, and the director of Houston Parks and Recreation, Steve Wright, along with two representatives of the board of the private Memorial Park Conservancy, Steve Jenkins and real estate developer John Garibaldi, managing partner for development at the Hanover Company, and a chairman, Murry Bowden, founder and executive chairman of the Hanover Company, which in Houston specializes in luxury high-rise residential projects.
Speculation About Spectators
Of course, rumors abound that the land bridges are being built to accommodate the thousands of spectators expected for future PGA Tour golf tournaments in the park.
However, as far as we know, the 2015 master plan was in the works before the development of the golf course project approved by city council in January 2019.
Save Buffalo Bayou has filed a Public Information request for the contract between the City and the PGA Tour and Astros Golf Foundation, including the plans for parking.