The idea is to separate parts of Memorial Park while at the same time bringing the land together.
Susan Chadwick likes the former objective. She doesn’t understand the latter.
Chadwick, the president and executive director of an environmental advocacy organization called Save Buffalo Bayou, is opposed to the land bridge project in the heart of Houston’s signature park. Part of the Memorial Park Master Plan approved by the city council in 2015, and funded by a $70 million grant from the Kinder Foundation, it features the construction of two earthen land bridges over Memorial Drive that would connect the north part of the park with the south.
Another part of the project involves moving baseball fields on the south side of the park to the north – where there are softball fields, tennis courts and a golf course – which would make the south side even more of a natural area for wetlands and wildlife.
“If they move all the sports facilities to the north and the south is nature area, why spend so much time and money constructing large bridges for people to go from the north to the south and vice versa since they will be doing different activities?” Chadwick wondered. “I don’t see the point of what they want to do.
“Even if they had a point,” she added, “we’d be opposed to it.”
Of greater concern to Chadwick and another Houston environmentalist is the project’s potential impact on the waterways that flow into Buffalo Bayou, which is the park’s southern border. The project, which will impact 1.52 acres of wetlands and 1,485 linear feet of manmade drainage channels, must receive a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Galveston to ensure compliance with the federal Clean Water Act.
The public comment period tied to the permit application, submitted March 5 by Harris County Improvement District No. 1, ends April 4. A U.S. Army Corps spokesperson said comments will be submitted to the applicant for review, a public hearing could potentially be held and the application will ultimately will be approved, denied, revised or withdrawn.
The points of contact listed on the application, Andrew Jerige of Harris County Improvement District No. 1 (which is affiliated with Uptown Houston TIRZ 16) and Jeff Dunn of land-use consultant Berg-Oliver Associates, Inc., did not respond to voicemails left Tuesday.
Randy Odinet, a project designer with the Memorial Park Conservancy, which also is involved in the land bridge initiative, said it will come with a “significant upgrade” that includes 25 acres of prairie where the baseball fields are now located. According to the permit application, the project will redesign existing drainage canals into a self-mitigating tributary system and add nearly 4,000 linear feet of stream.
“From an ecological standpoint, we feel that creating this much prairie and wetlands is going to have a huge benefit to the park,” Odinet said. “We’ll have improved storm-water quality and storm-water management.”
To the northeast of the proposed land bridges is Memorial Park Golf Course, which is undergoing a renovation and redesign funded by the Astros Golf Foundation. The plan is to have the course host the PGA Tour’s Houston Open beginning in October 2020.
Odinet and Giles Kibbe of the Astros Golf Foundation said the land bridge project, targeted to be completed in October 2022, preceded the golf course initiative and is unrelated. When asked if he envisioned the land bridges being used by tournament spectators walking to and from the course, Kibbe said, “No, not at all.”
“It has nothing to do with golf,” he added.
Brandt Mannchen, chairman of the Houston Sierra Club, which is the local affiliate of an international environmental and conservation organization, challenged the notion that the proposed tributary complex will be self-mitigating and said he thinks it will decrease Memorial Park’s wetlands instead of expanding them.
Mannchen, who in this case expressed his own opinions and not those of the Sierra Club, submitted comments to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers earlier this month. He said the project needs more mitigation and called it more landscaping than ecological restoration.
“Wetlands reduce flood risks. Wetlands provide wildlife habitat. Wetlands do all kinds of things,” Mannchen said. “So there will be less of that when there should be more.”