It’s For the Birds

Report on Plans for the Hogg Bird Sanctuary on Buffalo Bayou

May 11, 2016

First the positives about the presentation Monday evening, May 9, by the Houston Parks Board about plans for the little-known 15.56-acre nature preserve on Buffalo Bayou known as the Hogg Bird Sanctuary.

The sanctuary at the end of Westcott Street south of Memorial Drive is probably better recognized as the mostly impenetrable woods next to the parking lot for the Houston Museum of Fine Arts’ Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens, located across the bayou, accessible by a footbridge. Bayou Bend is the former home of the Hogg Family, who developed River Oaks and in 1924, along with partner Henry Stude, sold at cost to the city the 1,503 acres that became Memorial Park. (The Hogg Brothers also sold to the city at cost 133.5 acres of land intended to be part of Hermann Park. In 1943 the city sold that land for the establishment of the Medical Center, much to the continuing ire of their sister, Ima Hogg.) Ima Hogg, a cultural and civic leader and one of the city’s most revered philanthropists, donated the family house and gardens to the museum in 1957 and then donated to the City of Houston the woods on the north side of the bayou as a nature preserve.

The mouth of the tributary and Pleistocene-era bluffs off the Hogg Bird Sanctuary on March 18, 2016. This tributary once flowed to the east across the upper part of the nature preserve into the bayou. Photo by Susan Chadwick

The mouth of the tributary and ancient bluffs in the Hogg Bird Sanctuary on March 18, 2016. This tributary once flowed to the east across the upper part of the nature preserve into the bayou. Photo by Susan Chadwick

Ima Hogg a Defender of Nature and Public Parks

Ima Hogg, who died in 1975, was also an ardent conservationist, early civil rights activist, mental health activist, and defender of park space for the public, in particular Memorial and Hermann parks. In her letters to city officials over the years, available in the Museum of Fine Arts archives, she described her firm belief that woodland parks should be kept as natural as possible and criticized in a 1964 letter to then Mayor Louie Welch, who famously thought public parks unnecessary, the “alarming situation” of rapidly diminishing park areas in Houston and “throughout America,” including through construction in the parks by “worthy institutions” that really ought to look for building sites elsewhere, she wrote. Miss Ima was still angry that the city had “relinquished so much of the acreage” in Memorial Park for highways and a golf course and in an earlier letter to then city director of public works, Eugene Maier, demanded that the money the city received from the state for the highway land be used to acquire and improve additional park sites. Let’s guess that probably didn’t happen.

Hogg pointedly called Maier’s attention “to the fact that [the] Hogg Brothers relinquished all the acreage on which now stands the Medical Center to the City for park purposes only [emphasis in the original], as an addition to Hermann Park. It was our great concern for future park sites which impelled us to turn over to the City this valuable acreage, with the understanding that it would be a permanent park site. … The deed to that land was never intended to be for any other purpose than for the enjoyment of a free park for the people of Houston.”

Ima Hogg, c. 1900.

Ima Hogg, c. 1900.

In her 1964 letter to Mayor Welch, Hogg wrote that she had “often wondered why Houston did not have an ordinance which would require a vote of the citizens before public lands could be converted to any other use than that which had been prescribed by gift or by original designated purpose.”

Nearly twenty years later, the Texas state legislature did pass a law requiring at least that the public be notified and hearing held before the taking or change in use of any park or recreation, scientific or wildlife area or historic site, a law often ignored.

The Positives

The roughly outlined proposals for the Hogg Bird Sanctuary are based on what is already described in the controversial 2014 Master Plan for Memorial Park, implementation of which may be delayed due to city budgetary constraints. The Galleria-area Uptown TIRZ (which stands for Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone) was planning to spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on the long-term capital improvements outlined in the master plan. But Mayor Sylvester Turner has asked some of the wealthier TIRZ like Uptown to use some of their money to pay for city services they receive. The TIRZ, originally intended to help out underserved neighborhoods, are a much-criticized mechanism that enables certain areas to keep property tax revenue and spend it in their districts based on the decisions of unelected, politically-appointed boards, which typically are mostly developers.

“The TIRZ ability to implement the improvements [to Memorial Park] as we had hoped for a year ago is different today,” said John Breeding, president of the Uptown Houston District, in a phone conversation. But it is “far too early on in the budgetary process” to determine the “near or long term ability” of the Uptown TIRZ to help fund the planned improvements to Memorial Park or the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, he said.

However, the Parks Board’s Interim Executive Director Mike Nichols told the meeting that the improvements to the Hogg Bird Sanctuary would be paid through donations, including donations already made. The Parks Board reportedly has received a $1 million private gift dedicated to to the Hogg Bird Sanctuary.

Here are some of the positives outlined by Rebecca Leonard, president of Design Workshop, at the meeting Monday night in the Assembly Hall of St. Theresa’s Catholic Church near Memorial Park. Design Workshop is a landscape architecture and urban planning firm that also designed the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center Master Plan currently under way.

1. They plan to uncover the stream that flows across the park property through a pipe along the original path of the tributary that was diverted decades ago to the west, now bisecting the preserve and fed by a huge outfall draining the paved residential and commercial areas to the north. It was interesting to see a slide shown by Leonard describing the tributary’s attempts to move back over to its original channel. Streams do have their own intelligence and life force.

2. Clean up the woods on the east side of the tributary by removing invasive midstory and understory vegetation and replanting with appropriate native plants. This would be a lengthy task of several years.

3. Remove a row of parking on the west side of the parking lot to allow for more greenery.

4. Plant some plants in the grassy meadow north of the parking lot. (See detailed analysis of the planting plan and more below.)

5. Develop some as yet undefined, possibly natural surfaced trails through the woods south of the parking lot and along the northern edge of the sanctuary, with maybe some boardwalks across the wetland areas up there near the banks of the tributary. Leonard acknowledged in a conversation after the presentation that the site is difficult, filled with steep slopes and ever-changing topography. Most of it is in the floodway of the bayou. “Most of the site is inaccessible to most park patrons,” Leonard told the audience of about 75 people.

6. Not do much, which is probably a good idea since most of the park is in a floodway of the bayou and the park was intended as a nature preserve. The plan is to “keep human activity to a minimum” in the heart of the park by focusing on the edges of the site, said Leonard.

The Bayou Doing Flood Control’s Work for Free

The Negatives

1. A six-foot high, possibly solid fence along the northern edge of the sanctuary that alarmed homeowners there on Glenn Cove Street who enjoy their proximity to the woods. How was this natural and how would rabbits and other wildlife move freely about? they asked. The diplomatic response from Nichols of the Parks Board was that design of the fence was still open to discussion.

2. No forest management (and no fence) on the west side of the tributary, which, according to one supporter of the sanctuary in the neighborhood, means no enforcement against encroachment by landowners on Rains Way who landscape and alter public land as if it were part of their property.

3. We were dismayed to hear Leonard bemoan the ever-changing nature of nature by displaying a slide of the slumped high bank of the nature sanctuary and saying, “How can the birds and humans have any experience there when the land is completely moving?” We later tried to explain that this was an important natural dynamic. A river is a living symbol of change. The bayou was in the process of rebuilding the bank, we pointed out, and the trees and brush lying there were capturing sediment and restoring and strengthening the slope. Ironically this slope, created by the Memorial Day flooding, now has the angle the Harris County Flood Control District proposed to create with bulldozers and $4 million in public funds as part of the Memorial Park Demonstration Project. The bayou did it for free.

The south-facing high bluff of the Hogg Bird Sanctuary on May 9, 2016, at neear maximum flow from the dams upstream. The slumped slope, which took out a gravel path, is in the process of naturally rebuilding, using brush and collected sediment, and now resembles the slope that the Harris County Flood Control District wanted to build with bulldozers and millions in taxpayer funds in the Memorial Park Demonstration Project.

The south-facing high bluff of the Hogg Bird Sanctuary on May 5, 2016, at near maximum flow from the dams upstream. The slumped slope, which took out a gravel path, is in the process of naturally rebuilding, using brush and collected sediment, and now resembles the slope that the Harris County Flood Control District wanted to build with bulldozers and millions in taxpayer funds for the Memorial Park Demonstration Project.

A Continuing Failure to Respect the Natural Process of the Bayou

4. Leonard also showed a slide that purported to show the sinuous bayou channel moving slightly back and forth over time, the implication being that this was a bad thing. The bayou flowing past Memorial Park and the bird sanctuary in fact has shifted remarkably little over time, in large part due to the enduring presence of those ancient high bluffs, part of our region’s Meander Belt Ridges. But movement is not a bad thing. It’s a healthy thing, and rivers that have room to move, as Buffalo Bayou does in this stretch, are healthier, cleaner, and more biologically diverse. It’s far beyond time for public officials, including parks officials, to stop wasting money and understand and respect the fact that the bayou will do what it wants to do, that there’s good reason for a river to do what it does, and that it’s better to work with the river rather than against it.

Let’s hope the planners for the Hogg Bird Sanctuary do not make the same kind of expensive mistakes that were made in Buffalo Bayou Park downstream between Allen Parkway and Memorial Drive.

5. The suggestion of a piece of sculpture in the preserve next to the parking lot seems unnecessary and inappropriate.

How Much Will It Cost?

There were numbers attached to the different parts of the plan. The numbers seemed to add up to a million dollars or so, but they were difficult to read.

The Parks Board has promised to post the presentation on its website at www.HoustonParksBoard.org.

In the meantime here are some trenchant personal observations of the presentation and planting plan by Brandt Mannchen, an environmental scientist in Houston and longtime activist with the Sierra Club.

2 thoughts on “It’s For the Birds”

  1. Kenneth Curcio says:

    I appreciate all the efforts being made on behalf of preserving Buffalo Bayou in it’s natural state. It is truly a poor reflection on the power of the political process that allows the wants of a few to override not only the greater good for Houston, but even the original intentions of the Hogg estate. If only the benevolent & gracious attitude of the Hogg family were still in power today.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Yes, it would be nice to see more of that attitude in Houston today.

Leave a Reply to Kenneth Curcio Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *