HOUSTON – A wilderness at the center of downtown Houston where people, animals and busy road traffic will coexist peacefully with the creation of the Memorial Park Land Bridge and prairie.
Traffic on Memorial Drive splits the 1,500 acre urban park space. But traffic will be diverted through two sets of massive tunnels later this year.
“They feel more like going through an overpass in scale than a tunnel,” said Randy Odinet, the VP of Capital Projects at the Memorial Park Conservancy (MPC).
Odinet says construction crews are making progress everyday on completing the tunnels and covering them with massive amounts of dirt. Those tunnels will shift traffic slightly to the south and create a land bridge for people and animals to safely cross over to either side of the park.
“It will be very enjoyable for people, a new amenity for people,” said Shellye Arnold, president of the Memorial Park Conservancy. “They won’t even know they’re crossing Memorial Drive.”
The tunnels themselves are 27 feet tall, 54 feet wide and can accommodate three lanes of traffic in each set. Arnold says the land above the tunnels will give visitors views of both the downtown and uptown skylines that typically could only be seen in high-rises.
The revitalization of Memorial Park would not have happened without the 2011 drought that destroyed 50-90% of the tree canopy in certain areas, according to MPC.
Instead of replanting to return the park to what it was, a Master Plan was developed to transform it completely.
“It will not look like a golf course” according to Thomas Woltz, whose landscape architecture firm Nelson Byrd Woltz created the land bridge and prairie concept. They took special consideration for Houston’s history, people and land when designing the surrounding nature, with the land bridge as the centerpiece.
“It’s not just a bridge, it’s an entire ecosystem stitched into the park,” said Woltz. “It’s what was on the Texas prairies and it tolerated fire, flood and drought.”
Through the Master Plan process, Woltz and his team sought to restore native Gulf Coast prairie and savanna, which will act as a “green sponge” and help manage storm water.
The tunnels themselves were constructed to direct water off the roadway and into culverts to prevent flooding, according to MPC.
“The land bridge will be an important icon in the future for people on the inside and the outside,” said Shellye Arnold, President of the Memorial Park Conservancy.
Although traffic will soon flow through the tunnels, the land bridge itself won’t open until 2022.
Right now visitors can walk, run or relax in the completed Eastern Glades of Memorial Park. The trails and lake opened during the early months of the pandemic, just in time for people to escape the confines of their home.
While many use the trails, other Houstonians volunteer to keep the lush greenspace looking it’s best for visitors and pollinators.
The project was funded through a public-private partnership through the city of Houston, the Conservancy, Kinder Foundation and the Uptown Development Authority.