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.

Update Thursday, April 2: Houston City Council unanimously approves $3.2 million master plan for $200-300 million landscaping of Memorial Park over next 20-30 years.

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.”

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Springtime on a tributary of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park. Photo by Jim Olive on March 25, 2015.

Springtime on a tributary of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park. Photo by Jim Olive on March 25, 2015.

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.

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Central Texas limestone entryway proposed for Houston's Memorial Park. Image from Memorial Park Conservancy.

Central Texas limestone entryway proposed for Houston’s Memorial Park. Image from Memorial Park Conservancy.

 

 

 

 

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.

Read the rest of this article in the Houston Chronicle.

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.

Looking over Buffalo Bayou from Memorial Park towards the River Oaks Country Club. This area is targeted for destruction by the $6 million Memorial Park Demonstration Project. Photo by Jim Olive.

Looking over Buffalo Bayou from Memorial Park towards the River Oaks Country Club. This area is targeted for destruction by the $6 million Memorial Park Demonstration Project. Photo by Jim Olive.

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.

Among its many important projects, in 2010 the Endangered Species Media Project commissioned Houston composer Brad Sayles and the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra to create a symphony for Buffalo Bayou.

We offer this opportunity to listen to the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra playing the lovely Buffalo Bayou Suite in honor of Frank Salzhandler.

Listen to the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra playing Brad Sayles’ Buffalo Bayou Suite.

Frank Salzhandler, 1951-2015.

Frank Salzhandler, 1951-2015.

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.

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Beautiful banner of a night heron drawn by Houston artist Frank Tolbert hanging over Buffalo Bayou during the annual Regatta.

Beautiful banner of a night heron drawn by Houston artist Frank Tolbert hanging over Buffalo Bayou during the annual Regatta.