Your Time Is Up: Cohen Cuts Off Criticism of Costly Memorial Park Plan
What’s the Rush?
Full Council to Consider Unfinished $3.2 Million Plan Wednesday, April 1
Public Comments to Council on Tuesday, March 31
Update Monday, March 30: Council Member Steve Costello’s office has responded that as a member of the board of directors of the Memorial Park Conservancy, he will recuse himself from voting on the proposed master plan.
Public comments were limited to two minutes due to the large number of people signed up to speak on the city’s proposed master plan to spend $200-300 million on Memorial Park. A few of the nine members of the council’s Quality of Life Committee, chaired by Ellen Cohen, met last Wednesday afternoon to hear Parks Director Joe Turner and landscape architect Thomas Woltz present the ambitious, vague, and costly master plan for the 1500-acre-plus woodland park.
Dozens of people spoke in favor of the plan. Most of them were members of the board of or connected to the Memorial Park Conservancy, and many of them, users of the park, gave moving testimony about their reasons for joining the conservancy: the devastating impact of the 2011 drought, which has killed more than half the trees in the park.
But there were also strong critics of the unfinished $3.2 million proposal, which so far does not seem to be an actual written plan specifically identifying and prioritizing what should be done and when, two key elements for a successful master plan, according to a recent report on urban park conservancies from the Trust for Public Land.
A large contingent of critics were residents or property owners adjoining the park concerned about the increase in traffic, noise, lights, and people using the park. A smaller group of conservationists also expressed concern about the increase in traffic and parking, the loss of trees and natural areas, the expense, inappropriate planting plans, and lack of detail about costs and maintenance. It was suggested that new facilities be placed instead in new parkland purchased with some of the millions of public dollars to be used for the project.
The new master plan proposes to increase parking by thirty percent. However, the 2004 master plan for the park, much of which has never been carried out, identified parking lots as “undesirable intrusions on the natural landscape” and recommended “no net change to the quantity of daily use parking spaces” in the park. To manage peak demand, the 2004 plan recommended the use of shuttles and the construction of “an ‘over-flow only’ parking using environmentally sensitive construction techniques along the rail and power line right of way.”
The Blinged-Out Master Plan for Memorial Park
City Council Quality of Life Committee Should Send Expensive, Overdone Master Plan Back to Drawing Board
The Memorial Park Conservancy is sending its $3.2 million unfinished master plan for Memorial Park to the Houston City Council’s Quality of Life Committee on Wednesday, March 25. The plan is so far a gaudy, overstuffed mish-mosh of bad, hazy, contradictory, wrong, and incomplete ideas developed apparently with the main goal of spending some $200-300 million, half of it public money.
The committee should reject this tacky, impractical document and consider directing hundreds of millions of dollars towards the purchase of new parkland instead.
Among other things, the plan misleadingly describes Buffalo Bayou as it flows along Memorial Park as “altered.” A slide shown at the final presentation of the plan to a packed audience at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston March 9 outlined the bayou in bright red and identified it as “altered Buffalo Bayou.” (See slide 18.)
We were stunned. Reasonable people would assume that “altered” meant channelized, dug up, scraped, engineered, rebuilt, etc. by humans or machines. In fact, the bayou flowing past Memorial park is one of the last unaltered stretches remaining in the city.
But no, “altered” in this case means “changed over time,” explains Shellye Arnold, executive director of the park conservancy. The bayou has adjusted to increased water flows from increased runoff due to development and paving; therefore the bayou is “altered,” says Arnold in an email.
The conservancy is developing the ten-twenty-thirty-year plan with the Houston Parks and Recreation Department and the Uptown TIRZ 16, which is funneling our tax money into the blinged-out project. It’s not clear who is in charge of the master plan, or even who is now in charge of Memorial Park, for that matter.
Let’s Work With Nature, Not Against It
What’s the right way to protect Buffalo Bayou?
March 18, 2015 Updated: March 18, 2015 11:20am
Is the traditional vision of local and urban flood control agencies in conflict with federal and state agencies charged with protecting the health of our waterways?
Let me explain how I came to ask myself this question about mission conflict.
I grew up on Buffalo Bayou in Houston, and since early last spring I have been involved with a campaign to stop a flood control project that would destroy and then attempt to rebuild a healthy and relatively untouched riparian forest corridor running through the center of our city. It’s pretty rare to have a stretch of fairly wild river running through the middle of such a large city. The late great conservationist Army Emmott described our Buffalo Bayou as a ribbon of life running through the concrete. And that’s what it is: a living thing, a diverse and dynamic ecosystem that shows us the wondrous process of nature.
We are even more fortunate that in the words of the great river scientist Mathias Kondolf of Berkeley, this enchanting river has “room to move.” Here, in the middle of the city, we have space to “let the river be a river” — to let its banks change and its forest garden grow, as they would naturally. Dr. Kondolf traveled through this reach of the bayou in November, a reach that has never been channelized. The nearly 1.5-mile stretch targeted for destruction flows between the riparian forest and great cliffs of a public park (Memorial Park) and the forested terraces and high banks of a private golf course.
Note: This opinion piece is adapted from a presentation delivered February 12, 2015, at Texas’ first Urban Riparian Symposium, sponsored by the Texas Water Resources Institute, the Texas Riparian Association, and the City of Austin.
In Memory of Frank Salzhandler, Longtime Defender of Buffalo Bayou
Longtime environmentalist and defender of Buffalo Bayou Frank Salzhandler died unexpectedly last month at his home in Houston’s Cherryhurst neighborhood. He was much too young.
Frank was a respected activist and the founder in 1989 of the Endangered Species Media Project, a nonprofit organization that graciously sponsored Save Buffalo Bayou before it became an independent nonprofit last fall.
We offer this opportunity to listen to the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra playing the lovely Buffalo Bayou Suite in honor of Frank Salzhandler.
Operation Save Buffalo Bayou: Banners, Signs Erected During Big Regatta Saturday, March 7
Defenders of Buffalo Bayou traipsed through clumps of wild chives and violets on the banks of the bayou Saturday, March 7, in order to hang colorful banners from bridges and trees and set out signs informing more than a thousand participants in the annual Buffalo Bayou Regatta about the grave threat to our wild bayou.
Operation Save Buffalo Bayou was a huge success as competitors paddling down the bayou waved and shouted “No bulldozers!” and “Leave it natural!” to members of the Buffalo Bayou defense team sitting on the banks in the project area.
Bayou defenders also handed out informational flyers at the end of the race in Sesquicentennial Park adjacent to the Wortham Center downtown and engaged participants and officials in conversation.
The regatta was organized by the Buffalo Bayou Partnership (BBP), a non-profit organization in charge of developing the $58 million Buffalo Bayou Park between Memorial Drive and Allen Parkway downstream of the project area. The partnership officially supports the $6 million plan to bulldoze one of the last natural stretches of the bayou as it flows past Memorial Park in the middle of Houston.
Sand on the Sidewalks
BBP President Anne Olson wrote a letter of support for the destruction project to the Army Corps of Engineers in June 2014 saying that the plan would “significantly prevent” the bayou from “depositing silt on Buffalo Bayou’s downtown parks and trails.” She also claimed that the project, known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, would demonstrate “a prototype that can be employed by bayou property owners who currently remedy their property erosion by all different types of inappropriate stabilization methods.”
In fact the amount of silt and sediment contributed by the historic nature area targeted for destruction by the Harris County Flood Control District is minimal. But the project itself would likely greatly increase the sediment flowing downstream as a result of dredging the bayou, removing trees and plants, and breaking up the soil structure of the banks.
The TIRZ, Parks, and the Texas Constitution
Here’s the report from the Feb. 25, 2015, Uptown TIRZ 16 board meeting about when the once-a-boat launch on Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park at Woodway might be reopened.
The fenced-off Parks and Wildlife Paddling Trail takeout, referred to by the TIRZ as the “Woodway outfall,” is in need of a guardrail above a steep drop-off, parking reserved for the handicapped, and a gate that allows the park area to be closed at night, according to Sarah Newbery, the TIRZ 16 project director for Memorial Park.
The bayou access point on public land west of Loop 610 has been surrounded by a locked, curtained fence and closed to the public without explanation for almost a year since construction and landscaping were completed on the $1.36 million “erosion control” and drainage improvement project. The larger park area, known as the Old Archery Range, has been closed without explanation for nearly a decade.
The Houston Parks and Recreation Department is reviewing plans for the guardrail, parking, and permanent access gate for the former boat launch, Newbery told the board members meeting on the seventeenth floor of 1980 Post Oak in the Galleria. The TIRZ expects to send the plans out to bids in April and to finish construction by August, Newbery reported.
There will be a sign on the site by next week explaining all this to the public, said Newbery.
But why should the public not have access to the bayou through the park now, since there appears to be no legal or even safety reason why this part of the park should not be open in the meantime? The parks department could erect a temporary guardrail above any drop-off it deems dangerous, as it has done in Buffalo Bayou Park. There’s already a gate and a parking lot.
Uptown TIRZ Board to Meet: Is the Closed Woodway Not-A-Boat Launch on the Agenda?
Is anybody really planning to build handrails or a parking lot to make our $1.36 million once-upon-a-time boat launch in Memorial Park “safe” for the public to use again?
We’ll find out Wednesday, Feb. 25, at the regular meeting of the board of the Uptown Development Authority/ TIRZ 16, which is supposed to be funding further improvements (with our tax money) to the site reconstructed last year on Buffalo Bayou at Woodway. Project planners somehow forgot to include those user-friendly details when they designed the new drainage outfall “erosion control” project, according to the TIRZ and city parks department.
However, the new not-a-boat launch, with its long sloping ramp, looks perfectly usable to a lot of people, despite usually being covered in mud. But the city parks department says no, it’s not safe and the parking isn’t exactly right, so the area remains closed even after construction was completed about a year ago.
The board meeting of the Uptown TIRZ/Development Authority takes place Wednesday at 3:30 p.m. in Suite 1700, 1980 Post Oak Boulevard.
An official Texas Parks and Wildlife Paddling Trail takeout, the formerly wooded ravine in what’s known as the Old Archery Range west of Loop 610 has been closed to the public for almost two years while trees were cleared, slopes dug out, and a massive outfall installed. The landscaped, irrigated project, described by the TIRZ as a drainage and “erosion control” project, was completed almost a year ago but the curtained, heavy-duty fence and gate remain locked.
SWA Group did the landscaping and AECOM the engineering design.
The once-a-boat-launch is the closest official public access for paddlers to float down Buffalo Bayou through the historic nature area that the City of Houston and the Harris County Flood Control District plan to destroy. Known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, the $6 million proposal to bulldoze the riparian forest, dredge and channelize this relatively untouched stretch of bayou has the support of the Bayou Preservation Association, the Memorial Park Conservancy, and the Buffalo Bayou Partnership.
Update On the Not-A-Boat Launch In Memorial Park at Woodway
Rumors have been flying across the concrete prairie and through the riparian woods of Buffalo Bayou that what was once a popular boat launch in Memorial Park at Woodway will be opened again to the public maybe by March or April.
And while we have determined that there is not actually a definite plan yet for opening the once-a-boat-launch, we can confirm that there may be some plans eventually to possibly appropriate some money to build handrails for safety and handicapped access, a proper parking lot, and some other stuff that city officials claim are required to make the longtime, popular no-longer-a boat-launch safe again for the public.
The Uptown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) 16, which in 2013 expanded to include Memorial Park, will consider funding the improvements “required to open the area as a public access point to the bayou,” Sarah Newbery, Memorial Park project director for the TIRZ 16, said in an email. This budget decision will happen at the next board of directors meeting on February 25, 2015, at 3:30 p.m. in Suite 1700, 1980 Post Oak Boulevard, said Newbery.
Why an unelected semi-private entity controls our public park, we don’t know. But the Uptown TIRZ meeting notices and agenda are posted 72 hours prior to the meeting at the Houston City Hall Public Bulletin Board, at the rear entrance of the City Hall Annex, 900 Bagby. So go downtown and park and find the bulletin board and look on it to see what’s on the agenda. There does not seem to be an online notice.
We can tell you that the Uptown TIRZ 16 2015-2019 Capital Improvement Plan includes nothing for the Woodway “drainage/erosion control” project, not even for maintenance, which is a constant problem, since the badly designed (AECOM) outfall collects mud. However, the TIRZ 16 2015 CIP budget includes $9.5 million for “Memorial Park/Buffalo Bayou.”
Update on the Plan to Bulldoze the Riparian Zone, Dredge, and Channelize Wild Buffalo Bayou
The Army Corps of Engineers reports that it is continuing to supply the Harris County Flood Control District with their comments on the Flood Control District’s responses to the public comments on the district’s application for a federal permit.
Dwayne Johnson, regulatory project manager for the Galveston District office of the Corps, wrote in an email to Save Buffalo Bayou on Jan. 20, 2015, that the Corps expects to have a response and a possible new Public Notice about the permit application within thirty to sixty days. The new Public Notice would request new public comments only on the changes to the project plans made since the original Public Notice last April, said Johnson.
A federal Clean Water Act permit is required for the project because it will dredge and fill navigable waters of the United States. The Corps is responsible for that. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality must certify that the Corps’ permit meets Texas Surface Water Quality Standards. The Environmental Protection Agency also has the authority under the Clean Water Act to overrule a federal permit, although the EPA has rarely done that.
In addition, the Houston City Council, as the governing body for Memorial Park, must give public notice, hold a hearing, and vote on whether the project is a proper use or taking of public parkland under Ch. 26 of the state Parks and Wildlife Code.
Memorial Park has some protection from the deeds establishing the park. The Hogg Family, which sold the parkland to the city at cost in the early 1920s, set up the multiple deeds so that ownership of the park reverts to their heirs if the land is used for other than park purposes. These reversionary rights have been left to the Daughters of the Republic of Texas and the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health.
Plus, the City of Houston Floodplain Management Office must issue a development permit for the project because it involves construction activity within a city floodplain.
But It’s Best to Leave the Bayou Alone, Says BPA’s Water Quality Director
We lost track of the number of times our jaws dropped listening to Steve Hupp present the Bayou Preservation Association’s argument for destroying one of the last natural stretches of Buffalo Bayou in Houston.
Hupp, who was speaking to the Briar Forest Super Neighborhood council on Jan. 20, is the water quality director for the BPA, which was founded in the 1960s to protect the natural banks of Buffalo Bayou from the bulldozers of the Harris County Flood Control District. Hupp lamented that a representative of Flood Control wasn’t there to help him make his case for bulldozing and dredging some 80 percent of a healthy stretch of our wild, southern bayou for more than a mile in and around our public Memorial Park, including the great cliffs of the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. This $6 million boondoggle, touted as “bank restoration and stabilization,” is called the Memorial Park Demonstration Project (MPDP). Demonstrating exactly the wrong thing to do for erosion control by razing the riparian buffer, the project will destroy the bayou’s ecosystem. According to the BPA, the bayou will be re-engineered to “a more natural state.”
Briar Forest, which is south of Buffalo Bayou between Gessner, Westheimer, and Dairy Ashford, has been fighting its own battle with Flood Control over a plan to destroy a significant amount of forest to create stormwater detention basins.
City Council Member Oliver Pennington was at the meeting. Pennington, who is running for mayor, represents District G, which includes Briar Forest way out there and much closer into town, the south bank of Buffalo Bayou in the “bank restoration” project area. The south bank, which is half of the project, is owned entirely by the River Oaks Country Club, founded in 1924, of which Pennington is a member and which is donating $2 million or one-third of the projected cost of the “stabilization” project. The club is in the process of digging up and rebuilding its golf course, which over the decades has encroached on what was once thick riparian forest, moving closer and closer to the edges of the high banks of the bayou.