Bridging the Memorial Park Divide — $70 Million Project Removes Trees, But Brings Houston’s Showcase Green Space Together

Reshaping the Park to Provide Vital Pedestrian and Ecological Benefits

BY Shelby Hodge // 09.22.20

For the runners overheard cursing the workmen bulldozing trees in Memorial Park, for the woman seen crying as she watched the towering oaks and pines leveled, and for all others decrying the changing landscape, Memorial Park Conservancy assures that the $70 million Land Bridge and Prairie, necessitating removal of so many trees, will put the 1,500 acre park at the forefront of park design while addressing numerous critical needs.

“For generations Houston’s largest urban wilderness has been cut in half by Memorial Drive and subdivided by other roads, compromising recreational areas, public safety, habitats and storm water flow,” Memorial Park Conservancy president and CEO Shellye Arnold tells PaperCity. “In our public input process to develop the Master Plan for Memorial Park, Houstonians asked for access and safe crossings across Memorial Drive, and to help heal the Park’s ailing ecologies.”

The same landscape architecture firm — Nelson Byrd Woltz — that designed the lyrical, highly-praised Eastern Glades developed plans for the pair of land bridges and coastal prairie that will join the north and south segments of the park that have been separated for decades by the six-lane, tree-lined Memorial Drive.

“A restored network of native gulf coastal prairie habitat will improve regional biodiversity, carbon sequestration, and stormwater management,” Arnold says. “It may be hard to picture now, but the end result of this project will produce an iconic landmark and will ensure a resilient future for Memorial Park.”

When asked about replacement trees at the Land Bridge and Prairie project, we were told that by 2028 some 12,000 trees will have been added to the park landscape.

Savanna and Prairie rendering offering views to the Galleria from an area that was previously ball fields and forest. (Courtesy of Mir)

“Offering a dynamic new community space with additional trails, trail connections and skyline views, the Land Bridge and Prairie is a hallmark project of the 2015 Memorial Park Master Plan that Houston City Council passed unanimously,” says conservancy chairman Steve Jenkins. “After the delivery of Clay Family Eastern Glades earlier this year, Memorial Park is ready for its next big transformation.”

The plan calls for relocating the Seymour Lieberman Trail to the north edge of the land bridge blessedly away from the flow of Memorial Drive traffic.  That move and new pedestrian lighting is expected to enhance the park experience. The conservancy advises that the current trail will not be disturbed until the new link is ready thereby guaranteeing a smooth transition.

Memorial Park By the Numbers

The Nelson Byrd Woltz renderings attached to this article reveal the full scope of the land bridges which will require realignment of Memorial Drive along an approximately 3,300-foot stretch, and thus the removal of the existing tree-shaded medians and trees both north and south of Memorial Drive. The six lanes will move southward from the current location to accommodate in each direction the two tunnels.

The high earthen mounds will reach a height of 35 feet over the four tunnel segments, facilitating skyline views to both the east and west. One land bridge will stretch 550 feet in width and the other 400 feet including the headwalls with an approximate 230-foot opening in between.

An informative review of the Land Bridge and Prairie Project can be found here on the conservancy website.

The $200 million Master Plan benefited in 2018 when the Kinder Foundation made a $70 million gift to the overall park makeover, which is being led by Memorial Park Conservancy, the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, the Kinder Foundation, and the Uptown Development Authority. The catalyst gift established the 10-year plan delivering an accelerated subset of Master Plan projects.

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