There are a number of improvements underway in the City of Houston’s parks, nature preserves and green spaces. And while March’s stay-at-home order has affected many, the fact that construction was deemed an essential business has allowed these improvement projects to continue.
The question now is when the public will be able to fully enjoy them.
Shellye Arnold, the president and CEO of the Memorial Park Conservancy, said Phase II of the park’s Eastern Glades project is on track to be completed this summer. Phase I of Eastern Glades, which relocated a portion of East Memorial Loop Road and extended the Seymour Lieberman Exer-Trail, opened in October 2018.
Phase II will restore some of the park’s natural ecology and add a lake and wetlands as well as new trails and boardwalks through a 100-acre portion of the park that was formerly inaccessible and challenged from an ecological perspective. The project will also include new picnic pavilions and terraces.
This summer will also see the completion of the first phase of the Sports Complex, where the relocated sports fields and volleyball courts will join the recreation facilities in the northeast quadrant of the park. This is Phase I of the future Memorial Park Sports Complex.
“At this point we are on schedule,” Arnold said. “All the construction is taking place behind fences. The biggest consideration is when the right time to open is. We’ll be following city, state and federal guidance when making a decision and are hoping for opening this summer.”
The Land Bridge and Prairie project is another 100-acre project underway in which a natural bridge will be constructed over Memorial Drive that will link the north and south sides of the park, providing safe crossing across the six-lane road. The project will also add additional trails, restore native prairie and savanna ecologies to help slow, absorb and cleanse storm water and connect wildlife corridors.
“The funding for these projects is committed,” Arnold said.
There are a number of other projects that are part of the Memorial Park Master Park plan, which has been underway since 2016 when the Houston City Council unanimously approved it. In 2018, the Kinder Foundation pledged $70 million of catalyst funding to accelerate the plan’s delivery. The partnership of the conservancy, Houston Parks and Recreation Department, the Kinder Foundation and Uptown Development Authority identified projects that would be the most impactful to the most Houstonians. The total cost of these projects, with a delivery date of 2028, is approximately $200 million.
“The pandemic has shown that parks are really important and increasingly relevant in people’s daily lives,” Arnold said. “They are a refuge. And while it’s important to stay close to home and follow current guidelines, we are looking forward to the upcoming opening of Eastern Glades to offer a place of much-needed refuge, respite and restoration for all of Houston.”
Bayou Greenways 2020
Chip Place, managing director of capital programs for the Houston Parks Board, said the Bayou Greenways 2020 project which encompasses 150 miles of trails and 3,000 acres of greenspace is expected to be 94 percent under construction by the end of this year.
In the Heights, Bayou Greenway Park, the land for which was acquired by the Parks Board in 2010, will be completed by the fall.
The park – at the juncture of Studemont Street and the MTK hike and bike trail – will be a 1.5-acre greenspace with a plaza, a boardwalk and overlook trails as well as poetry panels. There will also be a connecting 1-acre trailhead with parking to provide access to the MKT trail and White Oak Bayou Greenway.
“We’re also moving forward with plans to connect the White Oak Greenway west of Stude Park with a new trail and tributary culvert crossing across the bayou from Bayou Greenways Park,” Place said. “It’s a complicated project and we’ve been working closely with the Army Corps of Engineers, the city and the Texas Department of Transportation. Bidding is expected this summer. It’s a nine-month project.”
The new Oak Forest Park with its accessible playground will wrap up this spring, but Place said that grand opening will have to wait, pending the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions.
Houston Arboretum & Nature Center
Debbie Markey, executive director for Houston Arboretum & Nature Center, said it, too, is wrapping up some big projects as part of its $25 million master plan.
The main entrance was moved from Woodway Drive to Loop 610. Also finished is the renovation of 4,000 square feet of a welcome center that was part of the original 1967 education building. That revamp included newly restored bathrooms, two new classrooms and a new gift shop and display hallway.
“It’s so airy and full of light,” Markey said. “It was open a month before we had to close.”
Now they are working on updating the other 8,000 square feet of the building that was first added in the 1990s as part of a $3 million effort.
“We started in February and will finish in June,” Markey said. “That’s been the most fun, working with the education department on the Discovery Room. The orientation has changed from north/south to east/west. We will have double the classroom space. The new Discovery Tree is made from reclaimed pine. The whole ceiling uses an LED lighting system to show the constellations.”
While most of the staff is working from home, Markey said, there are some tasks, like landscaping, that must continue. Markey also said that although the playground and education building are closed, there are many people who are using the trails to get outdoors.
All classes and events were closed through Thursday, but Markey said the arboretum is planning to fulfill its summer offerings. Markey said she’s fielding calls about summer camps and programs for children, and that the nature center will follow city guidelines in making plans to reopen.
“In March we had almost 50,000 visitors, which is 10,000 more than the previous month (and) March 2019.” Markey said. “People want to be here.”