Parks Board Bulldozing Buffalo Bayou, Cutting Trees, Installing Sheet Pile and Concrete
May 14, 2020
The Houston Parks Board has begun scraping vegetation, cutting native willow and cottonwood trees, and bulldozing the north bank of Buffalo Bayou upstream of Shepherd Drive. The plan, according to an announcement, is to widen the bank to its “pre-Harvey” condition and install concrete riprap and sheet pile walls.
The “slope repair” work is part of a four-phase Parks Board project on the bayou bank from Shepherd to the Memorial Park golf course, according to the City building permit.
The area, though partly landscaped, is one of the few stretches of “living” bank in the highly urbanized bayou, home to families of threatened alligator snapping turtles, beavers, alligators, and more. Hardening the bank with concrete and metal destroys wildlife habitat as well as the bank’s natural ability to cleanse and absorb polluted stormwater and sediment. Bank hardening increases erosion and flooding up and down the stream, displacing flow onto other property.
Because of these negative impacts, the project violates the City’s Floodplain Management Plan (p.6), which requires the protection of the “natural and beneficial function” of our floodway and floodplains, and thus has the potential to reduce the City of Houston’s Community Rating from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (see also here), potentially raising the cost of flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program.
Nevertheless, the City’s Floodplain Management Office issued the project a floodplain development permit.
The increasing number of bank hardening projects downstream and upstream (here and here) threatens the life and health of our ancient river, the city’s main waterway, as well as the people who live near it.
Where is the Greenway?
The Parks Board’s April 30 press release stated that while the project “preserves the potential for a future Bayou Greenways 2020 trail,” the Board “at this time” is “not constructing a greenway or hike-and-bike trail.”
Bayou Greenways 2020 is the Parks Board’s signature project: the installation of 150 miles of wide concrete sidewalks along our mostly mowed, treeless, channelized and concreted bayous. The project has provided Houstonians with much needed areas to bike, jog, and walk, connecting bayous, parks, and neighborhoods. We do wish that more native trees and vegetation would be planted on these shadeless, lifeless bayous. The City’s Natural Resources Management Program, a part of the Parks and Recreation Department, does have projects to restore prairies and the riparian areas of some bayous in city parks.
However, destroying the natural greenery of a bayou in order to create a “greenway” seems counter-productive, to put it mildly. Biodiversity loss is a profound issue worldwide, in urban areas in particular, considered a threat to human health and survival, a factor in epidemics.
While the Parks Board’s announcement says that the “stable” bank will be “planted to match the adjacent landscape,” whatever that means, concrete riprap and metal walls destroy the natural, beneficial functions of the bank and stream. These functions include naturally adjusting and stabilizing itself. In the last three years since Harvey, the bank has done that with deep-rooted plants, native trees and a wall of sturdy cane, now being ripped out.
The Board’s plan to extend the bank and harden it is clearly an attempt to support a wide concrete sidewalk on the bayou’s edge, always a foolish idea.
Safe Route Needed for Hikers, Bikers, Joggers. Access to the Bayou is Good.
Beth White, president of the Parks Board, did not immediately respond to questions about the route of the future “trail” that would connect joggers, hikers, and bikers headed to and from Memorial Park from Buffalo Bayou Park below Shepherd. Certainly a safe path is needed. The sidewalk along Memorial Drive west of Shepherd is narrow, broken, and dangerous. However, along the bayou, the land is narrow, wooded, and other than Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, mostly private.
Recently the Memorial Park Conservancy, the private foundation managing the public park, closed public access to the popular but unofficial trails through the bayou woods on the southeastern side of the park, citing vague safety issues.
Streets for the People
White also did not respond to an invitation to consider less costly and destructive solutions to the trail connection problem. These could include a simple crushed granite path along the existing natural bank, perhaps for pedestrian use only, as heavy bike traffic could be destabilizing. And/or perhaps dedicating a portion of the six-lane Memorial Drive to hikers and bikers. Cities all over the world and the US are setting aside streets for hikers and bikers, particularly in response to the increased pressure to be outside—and in nature–resulting from the pandemic.
Once an Urban Wonderland
The current project is under construction on land behind the Left Bank apartments at 5353 Memorial Drive. The Parks Board around 2018-2019 apparently purchased some 28,000 square feet of bayou frontage behind the apartment complex now valued at around $1.5 million, according to the Harris County Appraisal District. Note that that was after Hurricane Harvey.
A resident of the apartment complex, who has lived there with her family for more than 20 years, says that the acre or so of formerly wooded parkland behind the complex was once “magical.” Though landscaped with a pond and sidewalks lit by lamp posts, the grounds were filled with wildlife, including birds, beaver families, giant alligator snapping turtles, and even an alligator.
However, the wildlife has increasingly disappeared, she says. Since Hurricane Ike in 2008, she notes, the bayou fills and overflows more rapidly, dropping more and more sediment on its natural floodplain there. (As rivers do on floodplains.) The pond, sidewalks and lamp posts have been buried in 5-10 feet of sand, she points out. Many of the large trees have died.
One can expect that the bayou will continue to drop sediment on what is now the Parks Board’s land.
The Parks Board’s White also did not respond to questions about the cost of the project or a request for a copy of the federal permit and required documentation supporting the claim of restoring the bank to its “pre-Harvey” configuration.
A Lack of Transparency
Among major cities, the Houston Parks Board is one of the only park boards or commissions in the country that does not publicize its meetings, agenda, or minutes. (See Austin and Dallas and San Antonio and Galveston. And Los Angeles. The Minneapolis board even has televised public meetings.)
The Houston Parks Board is a both a public local government corporation (LGC) and a private, nonprofit foundation. The membership of the two entities is the same, with fourteen additional members added to the foundation. The twenty members of the LGC are appointed by the mayor and approved by city council, and these people in turn vote themselves onto the foundation board, allowing themselves to operate in private.
The purpose of both organizations is to raise funds, donations, and bequests for city parks and improvements. In the fiscal year ending June 2018, the foundation raised almost $17 million in contributions and grants and provided over $10 million in grants and assistance as well as over $5 million in bayou maintenance and Harvey cleanup.
The joint members of the LGC and the foundation meet with themselves several times a year. Reportedly the LGC portion of the meeting is open to the public, with the notice posted downtown at City Hall.
It’s time for greater transparency and clarity from the Houston Parks Board.
It’s also time for the City to start restricting traffic, which has declined anyway, and opening our streets to people on bikes and on foot.