Land Bridges in Memorial Park: They Better Be Great

Sacrificing Magnificent Pines. For Whom?

Aug. 31, 2020

So construction has begun in Houston’s Memorial Park on the $70 million “land bridges” that will cover Memorial Drive, placing the busy six-lane roadway under two arching concrete tunnels. The tunnels will be covered with 300,000 pounds of dirt and planted like a prairie. In addition, numerous mature loblolly pines and other trees have been/will be removed on the north and south sides of Memorial Drive to make room for construction and extend restored prairie.

Pile of 60-80 year old pines felled in Memorial Park south of Memorial Drive to make way for the new land bridges. Photo Aug. 16, 2020 by SC

The purpose of the dramatic land bridges, according to its proponents, is to connect the north and south sides of the park, create a scenic attraction, and provide a safe passage for people and wildlife. But the question on many people’s minds is: who or what is going to go from the woods, ravines, Buffalo Bayou banks, and wetland prairie of the south side to the new PGA Tour golf course, jogging trail, and sports facilities on the north side? Or vice versa?

A drawing of the land bridges over Memorial Drive looking westward towards the Galleria. Graphic from the Memorial Park Conservancy.

Major funders of the park’s 2015 Master Plan admit to rarely if ever having been on the south side of the park and claim that it is “hardly used.” But on any given day, any time of the day, the magical woods and trails of the south side are filled with the voices and presence of families with small children, lone hikers, couples, trail bikers, joggers, bird watchers, and others who treasure the rare experience of wild wooded ravines in the center of the city.

We can only hope that going forward this experience of nature will be preserved for the people of Houston, as the park was intended. We would be happy to accompany Mr. and Mrs. Kinder and Mr. John Breeding on a tour of these south side woods so that they can become better acquainted with them. Breeding, representing private Galleria-area real estate interests, is overseeing the expenditure of some $108 million in public funds on this $200-300 million master plan.

Note that there is already a modest Living Bridge that connects the north and sides of the park, as well as several drainage culverts under Woodway and Memorial for any coyotes, rabbits, bobcats, or possums that desire to roam discreetly on the new golf course or tennis courts. The Living Bridge is the partial result of the excellent, nature-sensitive, and unrealized 2004 Master Plan for the park.

Where the trees were south of Memorial Drive in Memorial Park. Photo Aug. 27, 2020

Trees Don’t Belong There?

This felling of 60-80 year-old pines, along with other large trees, is on top of the hundreds of mature trees that have been removed for the golf course renovation, creation of a two-level golf practice facility, and construction of the Eastern Glades. Trees in Memorial Park are not protected by city code. (p. 43)

Despite claims that pines are not native to Memorial Park, or that the pines, hackberry and other trees “don’t belong” in the landscape south and north of Memorial Drive, Harris County is part of the Pineywoods, which extends west through Memorial (see Piney Point) ending in an ancient remnant of loblollies in the Lost Pines Forest of Bastrop County. Early surveys of the bayou from 1831 through 1848 (p. 42) as well as letters from a soldier at Camp Logan in 1917 describe the pines of what is now Memorial Park.

Some Good Things

Here are some good things about the land bridges:

1. Possibly will reduce traffic noise in the park from the road, though trees and bushes do that too.

2. Creates some new greenspace above the roadway.

3. Part of a plan to re-naturalize the south side of the park used for team sports, cycling, and picnicking. Those activities are being moved to new facilities north of Memorial Drive.

Some Bad Things

1. Costs a huge amount of money ($70 million). Some people call it a “waste.”

2. Do not appear to serve any useful purpose.

3. Buries a scenic drive inside darkened tunnels.

4. Kills a lot of magnificent trees.

Read the rest of this post.

Performing a Service

New Boxes for Trash Bags on Buffalo Bayou and Spring Creek

Aug. 16, 2020

Four years ago a Houston Boy Scout built and installed wooden boxes to distribute reusable mesh bags for collecting trash on Buffalo Bayou and Spring Creek. The project was part of a statewide initiative of the Nueces River Authority called Up2U. It was also part of the Scout’s service requirement for obtaining the rank of Eagle Scout.

But over time the boxes wore out. And now another Scout, 16-year-old Edward Millard, has built new boxes for his Eagle Scout service project. And with the help of Tenderfoot Scout Luke Odom (and a little assistance from the dad), Millard has installed them at three locations: Pundt Park on Spring Creek and Briar Bend Park and Memorial Park on Buffalo Bayou, the latter two being part of Texas Parks and Wildlife’s 26-mile Buffalo Bayou Paddling Trail.

All these dedicated young Scouts are members of Troop 55. And as mother Elisabeth Millard noted during the installation, in these pandemic times, with social distancing, it’s not easy to put in the service hours required for advancing through the ranks of scouting.

Thank you for your service, Edward and Luke.

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Troop 55 Boy Scouts Edward Millard, left, and Luke Odom holding the bags at Briar Bend Park. Photo Aug. 10, 2020

Mom Millard taking photo that shows their handsome, happy faces.

At work with the helpful supervision of Dad Millard.

Harris County Precinct 3 Environmental Forum

Register and Participate Aug. 20

Aug. 16, 2020

Local environmental groups are sponsoring an online forum August 20 with the Democrat and Republican candidates vying to take the place of retiring Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, a Republican who has represented the west Houston area since 1989.

The forum takes place from 7 to 8:15 p.m. Advance registration is required to participate. Register here. The general election is Nov. 3.

Precinct 3 includes Buffalo Bayou west of Loop 610 and many tributaries, as well as other major streams like Cypress and Little Cypress creeks, part of Spring Creek and Brays Bayou, the federal flood-control reservoirs, Addicks and Barker; and much of the Katy Prairie. It also includes parts of Memorial, Spring Branch, Bellaire, West University, and more.

The west-northwest area of the county, once farm and ranch land, has been under heavy development pressure for many years, with resulting controversies over requirements for stormwater detention and preservation of the native prairie. Streams in the county generally flow from west to east.

Nature-based approaches to reducing flood risk—prairie grasses and wetlands, trees, parks, ponds, and gardens—slow rain runoff and absorb (and cleanse) stormwater before it even enters and overwhelms our natural (green) and built (gray) drainage systems.  Green flood management is the most practical, beneficial, and cost-effective method of reducing flood risk.

The candidates are Democrat Michael Moore, former chief of staff under Houston Mayor Bill White, and Republican Tom Ramsey, a four-term mayor of Spring Valley Village in west Houston, a civil engineer and until 2015, senior vice-president of Klotz and Associates, now RPS Group, a major contractor with Harris County and the Harris County Flood Control District.

Harris County Commissioners Court is the governing body of the flood control district, and individual commissioners have specific oversight over the activities of the district in their precincts.

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Review: Memorial Park’s Eastern Glades

Good, Better, and Some Ugly

Also: Black Lives Matter 1917

August 15, 2020

The best part about Memorial Park’s new Eastern Glades is the boardwalk through the woods.

Visitors to the popular park on Buffalo Bayou in the middle of Houston can now easily wander and wonder at our native woods and wetlands, complete with dead trees or snags, a vital part of the forest ecology. (Perhaps some signage will be coming along to explain the snags and wetlands to city slickers.)

There are also vast expanses of thick green exotic Zoysia grass for picnicking or just lying around, a Live Oak Court for events, and some lovely pavilions and picnic areas for outdoor grilling and dining, though the pavilions are currently closed due to the Covid.

A family strolls on the boardwalk through the wetland woods of the recently opened Eastern Glades in Houston’s Memorial Park. Photo by SC August 2, 2020

The 100-acre Glades, on the east side of the park north of Memorial Drive, opened at the end of July. The $35 million project, including $10 million in public funds, features a 5.5-acre artificial lake for detention and water re-use, 2.5 miles of new trails, and environment-friendly dark sky lighting. It’s the first phase of a long-term renovation of the 1,464-acre park, about 40 percent of which is the 600-acre plus golf course (until 1995 the course occupied only 260 acres), recently redone with $13.5 million in private funds to support the PGA Tour’s Houston Open. Sadly, this redoing involved the removal of large numbers of trees so that crowds of spectators can have a better view of the professional golfers during tournaments.

More Green, Less Gray, Some Bad and Very Ugly

The Eastern Glades is part of the long-term Master Plan for the once heavily forested park. Next comes the controversial Land Bridge, which will cover Memorial Drive and connect the north and south sides of the park. This too involves the removal of a great many more trees, although the current design looks greener and less industrial than previous drawings.

Although many trees were removed for the Eastern Glades and a thick carpet of exotic grass laid down, as built the area also seems somewhat gentler, greener, wetter, and wilder than the original plans, allowing at least for a less manicured, more natural experience of the remaining woods. We, and many others, are thankful for that, as Memorial Park was always meant to remain in as natural a state as possible. Let’s hope this aesthetic influences treatment of the rest of the park.

And maybe those bright purple irrigation lines snaking through the woods near the boardwalk are only temporary.

Big Depressing Mistake

The design of the formal Oval Promenade of the Eastern Glades is loosely based on the 1920’s Hare and Hare plan (p. 21) for a formal entry into the park at Blossom Street. From 1917-19 the land which became the park in 1924 was part of Camp Logan, a World War I military training facility and hospital that at the time extended past what is now Westcott Street. See note below. (Ed. Note: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said the original entrance to Camp Logan was at Blossom Street. The camp entrance was at what is now Washington Avenue and Arnot.)

Alas, the massive, newly built stone entrance into the park at Blossom Street is preposterously ugly, jarringly out of character in material, color, texture, style, and scale with the surrounding natural scenery and the airy, restrained architecture of the cabin-like pavilions. Built of depressing gray and blindingly bright hot white, beige-y Central Texas limestone or shellstone, the design intentionally evokes the 1920s or 30s. Why? Does it have to look dated? Can we not move forward?

Read the rest of this post.

Limestone wall, benches, and deck at the edge of the recently constructed lake in Memorial Park’s Eastern Glades. Photo Aug. 2, 2020

Approved: New Community Flood Resilience Task Force

Equity, Green Infrastructure, and Controversy

August 12, 2020

Harris County Commissioners have approved a new Community Flood Resilience Task Force.

The new task force, which passed Tuesday, Aug. 11, by a vote of 3-2, replaces the Flood Control Task Force established as a citizens’ advisory group nearly fifty years ago in response to environmental concerns about flood control district practices. Ultimately dominated by developer and engineering interests, that task force lost its purpose.

The new task force, though met with strong disapproval and reservations even from supporters, is nevertheless a laudable effort to provide oversight to the district. It is apparently an initiative of County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who with some exasperation urged participants to “keep trying to make it successful.”

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo during the virtual commissioners court meeting August 11, 2020.

Her staff had done a “lot of research” and looked at best practices of similar task forces around the country, she said at the meeting. Among other things, having a representative from each of the 22 watersheds, as some had demanded, would be too large, she said.

With Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle and outgoing Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack voting nay, the approval came near the end of another marathon virtual meeting, though at 6 hours 42 minutes, the meeting was only half as long as prior meetings. Discussion and public comments begin around 5:16:40 on the video.

The approved bylaws add the word “Flood”  to the name of the Resilience Task Force, include a conflict of interest provision, open meetings to the public, and move the task force out of the county engineering department to a temporary home in Hidalgo’s office.

Iris Gonzalez, director of the Coalition for Equity, Environment, and Resilience (CEER), called the bylaws “a step backwards.” She said they “fail to truly implement the Harris Thrives resolution” which the coalition had helped to pass in August 2019.

That resolution calls for the flood control district to, among other things, “bolster community engagement related to flood control by revamping the roles and responsibilities of the Harris County Flood Control District Task Force and ensuring that a geographically diverse range of community members is represented.”

Evelyn Merz of the Houston Sierra Club objected that as constituted there was still “no one really there with a background in green infrastructure, or green space, particularly in the natural sciences.”

Bob Rehak of Reduce Flooding Now, a Humble-Kingwood area group, urged the commissioners to “kill the proposal.” He said the task force “goes against the will of the voters who voted in the bond program.”

Harris County voters in 2018 approved the issuance for $2.5 billion in bonds to fund flood risk reduction projects.

Precinct commissioners will now proceed with developing nominations in order to begin the task force work in the fall, according to Hidalgo’s office.

At the end of the commissioners court meeting, one of the last public speakers demanded a Lamborghini, which he said the county owed him.

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Update: County Resilience Task Force. Will Same Problems Prevail?

Commissioners to Vote Tuesday

August 9, 2020

Update August 10: The Office of County Judge Lina Hidalgo today released the final proposed bylaws for the Community Resilience Task Force, now the Community Flood Resilience Task Force. Read them here.

Note: Harris County Commissioners Court will again discuss and possibly vote on the proposed bylaws for the new Community Resilience Task Force at its virtual meeting Tuesday, Aug. 11

Recently we told you about how the useless Harris County Flood Control Task Force was being transformed into a new Community Resilience Task Force.

On very short notice, the public was asked to participate in online workshops, send in comments by July 30, and speak at the July 28 Harris County Commissioners Court meeting, which turned out to be a marathon 12 hour 22 minute meeting. (You can watch the meeting here. Discussion of the resilience task force starts around 7:35:00.)

The original task force was established in 1973 in response to a successful, years-long campaign to preserve Buffalo Bayou and prevent it from being stripped, straightened, and smothered in concrete. The 1972 bylaws approved by commissioners court to establish that task force cites “conserving and wisely using the God-given resources we have for the present and future enjoyment of our citizens” as a primary reason for the task force. “God-given resources” meant nature.

Social Equity and Green Infrastructure

In the intervening years, rather than just “enjoyment,” we have come to better understand the superior role of nature in protecting us from flooding, among other important benefits. But for some reason, the proposed new bylaws, in referring to the original task force, overlook this environmental concern as the driving force behind creation of the task force. And although the commissioners in 2019 instructed the district to emphasize nature-based solutions in “public and private projects” (see below), the proposed bylaws don’t mention this either.

The very broad overall purpose of the new task force is “to act as an advisory board to Commissioners Court on matters related to planning, projects, and other efforts concerning infrastructure resilience in Harris County that includes a wide range of stakeholders reflecting a diversity of experience and geographic, socioeconomic, and demographic attributes.”

A major component of this is “the equitable and effective expenditure of flood mitigation and other resilience funds.”

Background of the New Task Force

In August of 2019, commissioners court passed the Harris Thrives resolution, which, among other things, instructed the Harris County Flood Control District to “adopt a framework that ensures a process for the equitable expenditure of Bond Program funds.” In 2018 county voters had approved the issuance of $2.5 billion in bonds to fund flood reduction projects.

The 2019 court resolution also called for the district to “bolster community engagement related to flood control by revamping the roles and responsibilities of the Harris County Flood Control District Task Force and ensuring that a geographically diverse range of community members is represented …”

It also instructed the district to “emphasize an approach that respects, reclaims, and restores floodplains; preserves undeveloped prairies and forests that detain stormwater; and encourages the use of nature-based solutions, natural infrastructure, and cutting-edge technological methods where possible in public and private projects …”

The resolution resulted in the Harris Thrives initiative to expedite more equitable and effective projects and funding for flood control, housing, and emergency preparedness.

Read the rest of this post.

Opinion: More concrete ditches and paved-over prairies? Houston must pivot to nature-based flood mitigation

By Amanda Fuller and Jordan Macha, Houston Chronicle

August 6, 2020

SBB editorial note: On July 15 Amanda Fuller gave a presentation on “Incorporating Nature into Houston-Area Flood Mitigation” to the Houston Galveston Area Council’s Regional Flood Management Committee. You can watch the presentation here.

With damage already felt from Hurricane Hanna on the middle and lower Texas coast, and the potential for a devastating hurricane season upon us, the fear of a repeat Hurricane Harvey is top of mind for Houston-area residents and local elected leaders alike. However, many are unaware that leaders in the region have an unprecedented opportunity to set Houston and Harris County on a more resilient and equitable path when it comes to mitigating the impact of future flooding events. With long-standing conventional projects waiting in the wings, there is growing concern that the window for innovation is closing.

After Harvey, many scientific and technical expert groups were formed, reports commissioned, and the public was convened — all in search of solutions. A common theme emerged from all of these efforts: we can’t keep approaching flood mitigation in the same ways and expect a different result — the powerful role of the area’s natural systems, plus a focus on the equitable distribution of funds, must be part of the answer. Continued development in floodplains and reliance on outdated hard infrastructure, such as reservoirs and drainage channels alone, coupled with the paving over of the Katy Prairie, have proven to be a recipe for disaster as the impacts of climate change intensify in the region, especially in communities that have been underinvested in over time.

The good news is that billions of dollars for mitigation activities are pouring into the state by way of $4.3 billion from HUD’s Community Development Block Grant Mitigation Fund (CDBG-MIT), administered by the Texas General Land Office, which is taking applications until Oct. 28. That’s in addition to the opportunity to compete for hundreds of millions of dollars from FEMA’s new Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities Program (BRIC), which will begin accepting grant applications this fall.

Read the rest of this editorial in the Houston Chronicle.

Fuller is director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Texas Coast and Water Program. Macha is the executive director of Bayou City Waterkeeper.

Greens Bayou flows near a neighborhood that is part of Harris County’s home buyout program on Thursday, November 21, 2019, in Houston. Photo by Elizabeth Conley, Houston Chronicle.

Changing the Houston Parks Board: How to Apply

Delays, Backlash Against Buffalo Bayou Bank Destruction

July 27, 2020

(Update July 29, 2020: The “How to Apply” link below expires and shows a “Page Removed” message. To reach the application page, go to Boards and Commissions and click on the Apply button.)

We spoke recently with the director of boards and commissions for Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner. We asked her about the Houston Parks Board, the process for becoming a board member, when the board meets, and other issues. Alas, she seemed just as confused as most other people.

We had proposed some potential candidates for the board, a public local government corporation (LGC) that is required to have open meetings. And we wanted to tell the Houston public how they, too, could nominate themselves or others to serve on the board. Four of the 20 positions have expired terms.

This was all in response to a damaging project the board has undertaken—without any public input—on Buffalo Bayou. Except that it wasn’t the public board, it was a private foundation acting as the board, without any accountability. And what they have done to the north bank of Buffalo Bayou above Shepherd Bridge is cut down mature trees, scrape up native vegetation, bulldoze the bank, and encounter some heavy resistance in their attempts to drive sheet pile into the bank. Progress has been slow, with weeks of no visible activity other than sediment leaking into the bayou. The contractor is NBG Constructors.

Trees and vegetation hold the bank together, cleanse and absorb runoff and flowing water, provide shade and habitat, among many other benefits. Even the Harris County Flood Control District recommends against hardened banks, which can increase flooding and erosion up and down stream. (p. 21)  The private Houston Parks Board foundation, using both private and public funds, has provided much needed hike-and-bike paths for many Houstonians as part of its Bayou Greenways initiative.  But most of these 10-foot wide concrete sidewalks have been placed on channelized or altered, largely shadeless streams. This is the parks board’s first project on Buffalo Bayou.

The Houston Parks Board’s unfinished sheet pile wall on the north bank of Buffalo Bayou on July 25, 2020, after heavy rain.

That Lack of Transparency

We had long been concerned about the lack of transparency from the Houston Parks Board, and this project forced the issue.

Maria Montes, director of boards and commissions for the last two years, said that she would be meeting with the mayor in early August to discuss whose term has expired and potential candidates for the parks board. She said there were basically three ways to become a candidate for the public Houston Parks Board: a recommendation from a city council member, making an application online, and by recommendation from a current parks board member.

When we mentioned that all twenty members of the board were also board members of the private parks board foundation, she said that only a couple of people on the public board were on the board of the private foundation.

However, a comparison of the current roster of the public board with the board of the private foundation shows that everyone on the public board serves on the private board. Most major cities have public park boards or commissions with members, naturalists and community activists, for example, who are different from the board members of the private supporting foundation.

We asked Montes how often the public board meets and how to find out about meetings. She said that notices of board meetings are posted on the board’s website. But the public board does not have a website. The website of the Houston Parks Board belongs to the private foundation, which is the public face of the parks board. There are no announcements about meetings on the website. The foundation does not hold public meetings.

How to Apply

To apply to be a member of the public Houston Parks Board LGC, go to the City of Houston Boards and Commissions page and click on “Apply.”

To learn more about the private Houston Parks Board foundation and its relationship to the City of Houston, register here for Parks Board 101, a free virtual “lunch and learn” offered by the foundation’s Rising Leaders group on Thursday, July 30, from noon to 1 p.m.

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Sheet pile being driven into the north bank of Buffalo Bayou on July 17, 2020. The bayou channel is lined in places with layers of hard, cemented sandstone.

Citizens Flood Control Task to Become Community Resilience Task Force

July 22, 2020

From the mid Sixties to the early Seventies, a group of well-to-do and influential Houstonians fought to prevent Buffalo Bayou from being stripped, straightened, and covered in concrete like White Oak and Brays bayous.

In the wake of that success, in 1973 Harris County Commissioners’ Court created a Citizens Advisory Task Force to make sure that future flood protection projects incorporate environmental concerns.

In the intervening years that goal has become even more important as modern practice recognizes that nature-based methods of reducing flood risk are more effective, more beneficial, more flexible, longer lasting, and less costly. (See p. 27, also here and here and here and here, for starters.)

Yet, instead of becoming more vital, our citizens flood control task force somehow became pointless and irrelevant, and the Flood Control District continued to strip, dredge, and armor streams all over the county—even as every engineering intervention in our streams, particularly Brays and White Oak bayous, has continued to require constant maintenance and repairs. Buffalo Bayou, where the Corps of Engineers in the 1950s stripped and straightened upstream of Beltway 8 and downstream of Shepherd Bridge, also continues to require costly repairs.

A Community Resilience Task Force And An Opportunity To Comment

Now Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has proposed a Community Resilience Task Force to replace the Flood Control Advisory Task Force. The purpose is “to act as an advisory board to Commissioners Court on matters related to planning, projects, and other efforts concerning infrastructure resilience in Harris County that includes a wide range of stakeholders reflecting a diversity of experience and geographic, socioeconomic, and demographic attributes.”

From now until July 30 Hidalgo is inviting the public to comment on the proposed bylaws for the task force either by email, through a virtual focus group meeting, or by speaking at the July 28 Harris County Commissioners’ Court meeting.

Here are links to the proposed bylaws.

The first of two focus group meetings takes place Thursday, July 23 at 3 p.m. Here is how to register for that Zoom meeting as well as another that takes place July 30 at 10 a.m.

Make Up of the Task Force

The task force is to meet at least six times a year and have 17 members who “represent the geographic, racial, gender, age, and ethnic diversity of Harris County.” Five of the members are to be appointed by commissioners’ court, who in turn appoint the remaining 12 members.

Of those twelve, there must be one each from the following categories:

1.Housing/Land Use

2. Health

3. Engineering/Construction

4.Urban Design/Planning

5.Environment

6.Community Leadership

7.Social Justice

8.Other Regional Infrastructure

The draft of the bylaws also proposes, among other things, that:

Appointed members must be residents of Harris County, have a demonstrated interest in serving the community, and meet one or more of the following qualifications:

•Represent one or more larger Harris County communities impacted by flood and infrastructure disruptions and resilience efforts

•Demonstrate knowledge of or interest in equitable and sustainable infrastructure resilience or flood mitigation

•Demonstrate knowledge of or interest in the socioeconomic and demographic factors that affect the resilience of communities

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Mama screech owl near Buffalo Bayou in Houston.

Plastic Free July

July 19, 2020

Houston’s Citizens’ Environmental Coalition is recognizing Plastic Free July with several free fun and educational events. These include an online showing of the film The Story of Plastic, available for viewing July 21 through July 23, followed by online panel discussions July 23 at 12 and 6 p.m.

In addition there’s an online Trivia Night July 29 during which you can test your knowledge of plastic. Starts at 6:30 p.m. Prizes from the Houston Chapter of the American Association of Zookeepers! Wonder what those prizes could be? Find out!

Find out more and register here.

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