Culture / Newsy

Memorial Park’s Massive Transformation Begins With Opening of $35 Million Gem — When a Forest Morphs Into a Wonderland

The Eye Candy of a Mega Lake, 100 Previously Unaccessible Acres and More Await

BY // 07.30.20
photography Memorial Park Conservancy

The official opening on Wednesday of the $35 million Clay Family Eastern Glades in Memorial Park met with little fanfare due to COVID-19. But the lack of overt celebration did nothing to diminish the glory of this transformation of 100 acres of previously inaccessible and ecologically distressed parkland into a stunningly verdant homage to history, ecology and recreation.

By Saturday, when all the construction fencing has been removed, visitors will encounter a pristine swath of picnic areas, native wetlands, savanna, pine forest, wide open green spaces and the eye candy of a 5.5-acre lake.

As someone who has spent more than two decades walking the park and playing golf there, I was quickly and happily immersed in this piece of the Memorial Park masterplan, which was designed by renowned landscape architect firm Nelson Byrd Woltz. The craggy forest has morphed into a remarkably charming, useable, sustainable corner of the 1,424-acre park.

On Thursday morning, Memorial Park Conservancy president and CEO Shellye Arnold led me on a tour across the acreage. As we entered the Blossom Street axis and moved across the Central Lawn, our shoes veritably squished through the cushy  ‘Zorro’ Zoysia grass, which was planted with picnicking in mind.

In fact, the thought process behind this section of the park was to provide space for passive recreation such as picnicking, strolling and simply lolling amid the natural beauty found in the middle of the nation’s fourth largest city.

“We tell the stories of Houston’s past,” Arnold says. “We honor the ecology. We honor the present for Houstonians who so need this space,” Arnold says. “And we set the stage for the future of Houston with this project. Both culturally, I think visitors will make memories here for future generations and ecologically. These trees will grow big. The plants will grow full. There will be a cycle of life here that already existed and now is healthier and continues.”

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Thoughts of the surrounding urban sprawl were quickly dismissed in the sylvan setting. More than 550 native trees have been added to the landscape. As we crossed the lawn a golden hawk circled on high while dozens of dragon flies soared above our heads. We spotted a graceful egret picking through a pocket of native wetlands. Arnold allowed that the winged residents here include black-bellied whistling ducks and hawks.

Wildflowers bloomed along our pathway as we crossed the new 2.5 miles of boardwalk and trails that flanked  Hines Lake which provides a focal point for the glades. (No boating or fishing permitted.)

Image of Hawk at Clay Family Eastern Glades; Photo by Memorial Park Conservancy
The Eastern Glades in Memorial Park is home to a variety of wildlife including the hawk. (Photo by Memorial Park Conservancy)

The family-friendly Eastern Glades offers four picnic areas and three picnic pavilions with built-in fireplaces for grilling, park benches, two new restroom pavilions, and Live Oak Court where food trucks can assemble and events can be held on a special lawn.

Memorial Park History

The Eastern Glades project draws upon Memorial Park’s history as the site of World War I Camp Logan through which some 70,000 soldiers passed. The primary pedestrian/bike entrance begins at Blossom Street, which once served as entrance to the camp. The design forms an axis that runs the length of the glade from Blossom Street on the east to Hines Lake on the west, passing through Blossom Street Plaza where walls and built-in stone benches reflect the civic architecture of the 1920 and ’30s, the era when the Memorial Park was established.

The axis is lined with regimental trees and limestone markers reminding of the soldiers who camped there.

“The Eastern Glades,” Arnold says “connects Houston with its past, its present and its future both through culture and ecology.”

The Ecology

Restoration and conversion were an essential component of the design, removing invasive species and eliminating dead or dying trees. The project included planting 550 native trees and adding more than 150 native plant species which not only help promote and sustain wildlife but also play an integral role in stormwater management.

Rain gardens and bioswales receive runoff from roofs and parking lots, which acts to slow and help purify stormwater. In addition, Hines Lake features 1.5 acres of emergent wetlands with plants that provide a healthy habitat and clean stormwater as it flows through the lake to a tributary leading to Buffalo Bayou.

“The conservancy’s data-driven and scientifically grounded approach involves. . . . establishment of healthy forest structure and biodiversity through the addition of native woody species and herbaceous plants; and stewardship through ongoing maintenance. While the conversion process is ongoing, the resulting  restored natural areas will be more resilient to climatic conditions and more hospitable to diverse wildlife,” the official announcement notes.

The Funding

Memorial Park Conservancy has partnered with the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, the Kinder Foundation and the Uptown Development Authority for completion of the master plan, which was announced as a 10-year project in 2018.

Memorial Park fans Emily and Robert Clay provided $10 million in seed money to get the project launched. The City of Houston contributed $10 million through the Uptown TIRZ. The remaining funds came from contributions by Wendy and Jeff Hines, the Kinder Foundation and others.

In 2018, Nancy and Rich Kinder’s Kinder Foundation provided a catalyst gift of $70 million to speed delivery of the master plan projects.

For a closer look at the Eastern Glades, check out the photo gallery below:

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