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.

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.

Plans Unknown. Federal Permit Application Withdrawn

We don’t know exactly what the plans are for creating new prairie or wetlands or what will happen to the existing wetlands and tributary streams, as well as a 100-year-old Camp Logan-era channel on the south side of the park. The former site of Camp Logan in Memorial Park is a state antiquities landmark, and any work there requires a permit from the state historical commission.

Stone-lined channel remnant from 1917 Camp Logan south of Memorial Drive in Memorial Park. Photo March 5, 2019

Save Buffalo Bayou has filed a public information request with the City of Houston for the current plans. The Memorial Park Conservancy, the private nonprofit corporation that manages the public park, apparently now under the direction of Galleria developers and the Kinder Foundation, is required to hold public meetings on any substantial changes to the master plan, according to the 2018 agreement between the City, the Conservancy, and the Uptown Development Authority. (p. 31) We are not aware of any public meetings about the master plan since it was approved by city council in 2015.

In 2019, in preparation for construction of the land bridges, the Galleria-area Uptown Houston District applied for a federal permit from the Corps of Engineers to fill wetlands and dredge and armor streams in the park. However, that permit application was withdrawn because the applicant decided that wetlands would be avoided, according to a representative from the Corps’ Galveston District.

Who’s in Charge: Developers and Donors

In 2013 the boundaries of the Uptown Houston District were expanded to include Memorial Park. (p. 22) The District works with the Uptown Development Authority and the Uptown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) #16 (pp. 32-33) to fund and oversee implementation of the 2015 Memorial Park Master Plan, among other projects. The Uptown Development Authority and the Uptown TIRZ have the same nine unelected board members, all property owners or agents or employees of property owners within the district.

The Uptown TIRZ intends to spend more than $108 million in public funds for construction projects in Memorial Park through 2023. Uptown is also required to pay some $600,000 annually to maintain the park’s running center and greenspace. (p. 52)

“The Memorial Park Conservancy was once dominated by environmentalists—as opposed to commercial and sporting interests,” laments one long-time advocate for the park.

The Standards Committee Is Responsible

The entire master plan project is overseen by a Standards Committee set up by the 2018 agreement between the City of Houston, the Memorial Park Conservancy, and the Uptown Development Authority. (p. 32) Two members of the Uptown Development Authority board sit on the Standards Committee, currently real estate investor Steve Lerner and retired developer Louis Sklar; two from the “major donor,” Guy Hagstette and Nancy Kinder of the Kinder Foundation, which donated $70 million to the master plan project;  the chief development officer for the City, Andy Icken, and the director of Houston Parks and Recreation, Steve Wright, along with two representatives of the board of the private Memorial Park Conservancy, Steve Jenkins and real estate developer John Garibaldi, managing partner for development at the Hanover Company, and a chairman, Murry Bowden, founder and executive chairman of the Hanover Company, which in Houston specializes in luxury high-rise residential projects.

Speculation About Spectators

Of course, rumors abound that the land bridges are being built to accommodate the thousands of spectators expected for future PGA Tour golf tournaments in the park.

However, as far as we know, the 2015 master plan was in the works before the development of the golf course project approved by city council in January 2019.

Save Buffalo Bayou has filed a Public Information request for the contract between the City and the PGA Tour and Astros Golf Foundation, including the plans for parking.

SC

Young family exploring the woods of the south side of Memorial Park on Aug. 27, 2020.

That Bend in Winter: A Hidden Landscape

Waiting for the Return

Feb. 24, 2021

We are quite a bit late posting a winter photograph for our ongoing series documenting the same bend in Houston’s Buffalo Bayou throughout the seasons. Our devoted and generous photographer Big Jim Olive is living with his beloved in fiery California these days where the air is supposed to be better. But he still frequently returns to his native Texas for photography jobs and visits with his many friends. Founder and executive director of the Christmas Bay Foundation, he also participates with other volunteers in Texas Parks and Wildlife’s annual Abandoned Crab Trap Removal program, which takes place from February 19-28.

Last week he was on his way, driving cross country, stopping to take photos of icy cacti. But by Seguin the frozen, snowy highway was closed, and after two nights in a motel there Jim was forced to turn back, leaving behind the excellent barbecue.

He’s returning this week, despite the forecast for stormy (warm) weather. But in the meantime the backup photographer had already gone out into the forbidden woods of the city’s Memorial Park to document that bend in winter. The fear was that winter would soon be over before Jim returned, despite the historic weather that froze the city and state just a few days earlier, leaving us all in the dark.

Frozen. Still Living. Still Closed. Sighting of a River Otter. Dumping of Picnic Tables

Whether you think a bare winter landscape is lovely is a matter of personal taste. For some people, the sight of seemingly dead trees and plants can be alarming. Will they come back?  But winter, particularly a harsh and deadly winter, however disturbing, does reveal a landscape that would ordinarily be hidden.

On a happy note, we did receive after the freeze a report of multiple sightings of a river otter in the bayou across from the park around Pine Hill. And many have surely noticed the flocks of handsome cedar waxwings in the city flitting from tree to tree, often yaupon, feasting on berries.

Looking downstream in winter at Buffalo Bayou from a high bank in Memorial Park, another installment in our ongoing series, A Bend in the River. Photo by SC, Feb. 20, 2021, because JO wasn’t there yet.

The popular trail through the bayou woods on the southeast side of Houston’s Memorial Park was still fenced off and posted with the same fictitious warning signs. In fact, the gates to the Picnic Loop itself were still locked on this sunny, warm Saturday after the horrible freeze. No doubt this was due to a shortage of staff still coping with the disastrous impact of the winter weather. People were forced to park their cars in any spot they could find and squeeze with their kids and bikes and strollers through or around the gates.

Flow in the bayou was around 400 cubic feet per second (cfs) and dropping.

Looking upstream from the same high bank at the costly and damaging concrete walls and riprap needlessly installed by the River Oaks Country Club. Photo Feb. 20, 2021

Violets and Dandelions

After documenting the bend upstream and down, we ventured further down the path and reached the steep banks of the creek that flows from the center of the park, noting that there were several new spontaneous foot paths through the woods.

The ground was mostly bare, scattered with spikey sweetgum seed balls, which like pine needles (see also here), black willows, American beautyberry, and many other things growing on the bayou, have medicinal qualities. The small green leaves of edible wild violets and dandelions were peeking hopefully out of the earth. (Before the freeze, in another part of the park, we had seen some young stinging nettle, a delicacy served in the finest Parisian restaurants.) The water in the winding creek was clear and made a gentle tinkling sound as it flowed over the sand and woody debris. There were large trees fallen across the creek, and in a youthful past the backup photographer, who grew up on the bayou, might have carefully stepped or scooted across these bridges laid down by nature. Or at least watched her brother do it.

Fallen trees lying across a creek, a tributary of Buffalo Bayou that flows from the center of Memorial Park. Photo Feb. 20, 2021

The bare winter landscape revealed a haphazard pile of concrete picnic tables, benches, and grills that had apparently been removed from the Picnic Loop and tossed in the woods near the creek. We’ll ask about this thoughtless trashing of the park.

Concrete picnic tables, benches and grills tossed in the woods of Memorial Park near the creek. Photo Feb. 20, 2021

The Bayou in the Snow

Here’s the way the bayou looked on Feb. 15 after the snow.

SC

Raising Bridges, Building Meander Bypasses on Buffalo Bayou Doesn’t Reduce Flooding, Study Says

New Idea is to Strip and Widen Bayou Channel in Terry Hershey Park Above Beltway 8

New Problem: Increased Flooding Downstream

 

Oct. 20. 2019

A study commissioned by the Harris County Flood Control District has found negligible flood-reduction benefits to building bypass channels through meanders or raising bridges on Buffalo Bayou.

But the District is instead contemplating stripping the trees and vegetation and digging out the engineered banks of Terry Hershey Park to widen the channel by fifty feet on both sides for some six miles below the dams in west Houston. The District is still in the process of scraping out new overflow basins on the south bank in the park.

These findings were presented at a packed public meeting Thursday, Oct. 17, in the Memorial area of west Houston. The study, the result of public pressure from property owners who flooded in neighborhoods adjacent to Terry Hershey Park, was conducted by the engineering firm Huitt-Zollars and funded with $350,000 in Harris County flood bond funds.

Buffalo Bayou originates in the prairie near Katy, Texas, and flows for some fifty-three miles through the center of Houston, emptying into the San Jacinto River and Galveston Bay. It is the main river flowing through the city and a central part of the region’s natural drainage system. Below Beltway 8 to Shepherd Drive just east of downtown, Buffalo Bayou remains a mostly winding, wooded stream, and it was these many meanders that some residents upstream of the beltway blamed for flooding their homes when the floodgates on the dams were opened during Harvey.

 

Graphic courtesy of the Biomimicry Institute

 

The Meeting and The Findings: Is Nature a Better Engineer?

Alan Black, director of operations for the Flood Control District, opened the meeting by explaining what the district does and why the region floods (reasons which did not include the fact that so much of the city is covered in impervious surface). The first priority for the district is still “deepening and widening bayous,” said Black. Unfortunately that is a futile, never-ending pursuit, like building bigger freeways. It also leads to bank collapse, lifeless streams filling with silt and polluted water, a barren landscape, and continuous costly maintenance.

Modern flood management, rather than collecting and moving as much water as fast as possible, focuses on stopping stormwater before it floods a stream and on managing flooding in place. For instance, “lag time” is the amount of time it takes for rain to fall on the ground and enter a stream. The shorter (faster) the lag time, the higher the peak flow (flooding) in the stream. Trees, deep-rooted vegetation, detention basins, rain gardens and more can help increase the lag time and reduce flooding. There are many ways that neighborhoods and individuals can take responsibility for slowing, spreading out, and soaking in stormwater. (See also here.)

The district, which has limited legal tools dating from 1937 when it was founded, does focus also on building detention basins to temporarily hold stormwater, as well as on moving people out of harm’s way through buyouts.

 

Bridges

Michael Tehrani, vice-president of Huitt-Zollars, explained the study findings, which were “not that promising,” he told the large crowd, which included politicians and representatives of the Corps of Engineers. Buffalo Bayou is relatively flat, a “lower velocity channel” with a lot of trees; the channel itself “controlling the water and determining the Water Surface Elevation, not the bridges.”

Read the rest of this post.

Raising Bridges, Building Meander Bypasses on Buffalo Bayou Doesn’t Reduce Flooding, Study Says

New Idea is to Strip and Widen Bayou Channel in Terry Hershey Park Above Beltway 8

New Problem: Increased Flooding Downstream

 

Oct. 20. 2019

A study commissioned by the Harris County Flood Control District has found negligible flood-reduction benefits to building bypass channels through meanders or raising bridges on Buffalo Bayou.

But the District is instead contemplating stripping the trees and vegetation and digging out the engineered banks of Terry Hershey Park to widen the channel by fifty feet on both sides for some six miles below the dams in west Houston. The District is still in the process of scraping out new overflow basins on the south bank in the park.

These findings were presented at a packed public meeting Thursday, Oct. 17, in the Memorial area of west Houston. The study, the result of public pressure from property owners who flooded in neighborhoods adjacent to Terry Hershey Park, was conducted by the engineering firm Huitt-Zollars and funded with $350,000 in Harris County flood bond funds.

Buffalo Bayou originates in the prairie near Katy, Texas, and flows for some fifty-three miles through the center of Houston, emptying into the San Jacinto River and Galveston Bay. It is the main river flowing through the city and a central part of the region’s natural drainage system. Below Beltway 8 to Shepherd Drive just east of downtown, Buffalo Bayou remains a mostly winding, wooded stream, and it was these many meanders that some residents upstream of the beltway blamed for flooding their homes when the floodgates on the dams were opened during Harvey.

 

Graphic courtesy of the Biomimicry Institute

 

The Meeting and The Findings: Is Nature a Better Engineer?

Alan Black, director of operations for the Flood Control District, opened the meeting by explaining what the district does and why the region floods (reasons which did not include the fact that so much of the city is covered in impervious surface). The first priority for the district is still “deepening and widening bayous,” said Black. Unfortunately that is a futile, never-ending pursuit, like building bigger freeways. It also leads to bank collapse, lifeless streams filling with silt and polluted water, a barren landscape, and continuous costly maintenance.

Modern flood management, rather than collecting and moving as much water as fast as possible, focuses on stopping stormwater before it floods a stream and on managing flooding in place. For instance, “lag time” is the amount of time it takes for rain to fall on the ground and enter a stream. The shorter (faster) the lag time, the higher the peak flow (flooding) in the stream. Trees, deep-rooted vegetation, detention basins, rain gardens and more can help increase the lag time and reduce flooding. There are many ways that neighborhoods and individuals can take responsibility for slowing, spreading out, and soaking in stormwater. (See also here.)

The district, which has limited legal tools dating from 1937 when it was founded, does focus also on building detention basins to temporarily hold stormwater, as well as on moving people out of harm’s way through buyouts.

 

Bridges

Michael Tehrani, vice-president of Huitt-Zollars, explained the study findings, which were “not that promising,” he told the large crowd, which included politicians and representatives of the Corps of Engineers. Buffalo Bayou is relatively flat, a “lower velocity channel” with a lot of trees; the channel itself “controlling the water and determining the Water Surface Elevation, not the bridges.”

Tehrani said that their hydraulic study looked at raising 32 bridges on Buffalo Bayou between Highway 6 below Barker Dam and downtown Houston. The minimal result would be to reduce the Water Surface Elevation by only a couple of inches during a rainfall of 19 inches in 24 hours (currently in Harris County known as a 500-year flood). And the reduction would only be just upstream of the bridge.

 

Meander Bypasses: Nature Already Created Them

Tehrani noted that meanders create a longer path for the river. (And therefore carries a greater volume of water, a good thing, though he didn’t say that.) The engineering firm analyzed 18 meanders between Beltway 8 and Shepherd Drive and found that “nature has already created a quasi-semi bypass” through them.

As a result, digging out artificial bypass channels would have minimal impact on the Water Surface Elevation during a “500-year flood” – less than an inch for 78 percent of the meanders, and that only for just upstream of the meanders.

 

Graphic of a bypass through a meander naturally created by the stream. Image courtesy of Harris County Flood Control District.

 

Combining Raising Some Bridges, Building Some Bypasses or Widening the Bayou

The engineering firm then considered raising some bridges, digging out some bypasses, and creating some detention somewhere. (p. 22)  Result: negligible, complicated, and expensive.

The firm then turned to the option of widening the channel in the previously straightened (and narrowed, reduced capacity) bayou in Terry Hershey Park above Beltway 8. The Flood Control District owns the land in this stretch of the bayou. The idea (not yet firm or funded) would be to dig out the lower banks, creating a wide flood shelf, on both sides of the bayou, eventually replacing the sidewalk and possibly restoring some trees.

Note how the blue 500-year floodplain in the district’s graphic of the proposed channel widening corresponds to the original meandering path of the bayou and Turkey and Rummel creeks.

 

Proposed widening of the engineered channel of Buffalo Bayou flowing through Terry Hershey Park above Beltway 8 and below the federal dams. Blue area shows the 500-year floodplain. Graphic courtesy of HCFCD

 

A comparison of the original meanders and the straightened channel of Buffalo Bayou flowing through Terry Hershey Park by geologist Tom Helm.

 

Reducing Flooding Upstream, Increasing Flooding Downstream

The channel-widening option would reduce the Water Surface Elevation above Beltway 8 by more than four feet and potentially remove 240 structures from the 100-year floodplain and 877 structures from the 500-year floodplain, according to the study.

The estimated cost would be $216 million, including $118 million to purchase the land to create the detention needed near Beltway 8 to keep the greater volume stormwater flowing through the park from flooding people downstream.

Black emphasized that the channel-widening plan was just an idea and that as yet there was no money to fund it.

Here is where you can watch the Facebook video of the presentation.

Here are the slides from the presentation.

The Flood Control District is accepting comments on the study through Oct. 31. Here is where you can comment.

For more information about Houston flooding and flood-reduction strategies, here is a link to the complete list of research and studies from the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium.

Public Meeting: Bridges and Meander Bypasses on Buffalo Bayou

Date is Oct. 17 to Find Out Study Results

And More

Oct. 13, 2019

 

In the wake of disastrous flooding along Buffalo Bayou during and after Harvey in 2017, particularly on upper Buffalo Bayou after the opening of the floodgates on the federal dams, some west Houston residents urged the Harris County Flood Control District to look into whether meanders downstream and bridges across the bayou had blocked the flow, causing them to flood.

In response, using up to $350,000 in public funding from the 2018 Flood Bond election, the District in November of 2018 hired the engineering firm Huitt-Zollars to study the thirty-three bridges and four pipelines that cross the bayou between Highway 6 at Barker Dam and Congress Street some twenty-six miles downstream in downtown Houston.

More controversially, the study also examined the possibility of constructing bypass channels or culverts in thirteen locations, cutting through natural bends in the river. This would be below Beltway 8 where the bayou twists and turns, as rivers naturally do, for good reason. (p. 36) Meandering streams are longer and carry more water. Meanders also help dissipate the force of the stream during floods. Such is the power of the underlying geology that even if altered or straightened, rivers will seek to return to their natural channel, breaking through concrete if necessary. (See Tropical Storm Allison, Tranquility Garage, 2001.)

In the 1960s, environmentally-minded property owners on the bayou, including Terry Hershey and Save Buffalo Bayou’s founding president, Frank Smith, joined forces to stop the Corps of Engineers from stripping, straightening and covering in concrete this winding, wooded stretch of the bayou—as the Corps had done earlier, destroying White Oak and Brays bayous.

The Flood Control District is holding a public meeting to discuss the results of the meanders and bridges study on Thursday, Oct. 17, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church, 11612 Memorial Drive, in Houston 77024.

 

Comparison of Buffalo Bayou at Beltway 8 in 1944 and during Harvey in 2017. Note the engineered channel bypassing the original meander and flooding along the oxbow remnant. Graphic by Diane Masterson

 

Maligning Meanders

In the early morning of Aug. 28, 2017, after the peak of the flooding from Harvey had passed downstream on Buffalo Bayou, the Corps of Engineers made the unprecedented decision to open the floodgates on Barker and Addicks dams in far west Houston. Rising water flowing from the rapidly developing north and west of the city threatened to overwhelm the earthen dams. When the gates were opened, residents living along the six-mile plus channelized stretch of the bayou just below the dams were badly flooded. This stretch of the river had been narrowed and straightened by the Corps in the Fifties, essentially reducing its capacity.

But a popular belief continues that the meanders below Beltway 8 caused the bayou to backup and flood homes upstream adjacent to what is now Terry Hershey Park, hence the push to construct channels to bypass or cut through meanders. (Another popular belief, which also persists, is that the “rich people downstream” did not flood. There was, of course, massive flooding along Buffalo Bayou all the way through downtown Houston during Harvey. But that flooding, fed by the rapid accumulation of rain runoff from the city and suburbs below the dams, occurred before the floodgates were opened.)

In October of 2018 Save Buffalo Bayou published a report in response to this widespread mistaken belief about meanders downstream. The report explained why people flooded upstream and how meanders are beneficial and actually reduce flooding. You can read the full report here.

 

A Relatively Natural Urban Bayou Below Beltway 8 to Buffalo Bayou Park. A History of Failed “Improvement” Projects

As urban rivers go, Buffalo Bayou is, remarkably, a relatively natural river below Beltway 8 to Shepherd Bridge, though many property owners have foolishly razed the trees, landscaped with sidewalks and irrigation, or hardened the bank with  concrete riprap or sheet pile, leading to predictable flooding, erosion, and bank failure problems. (See also River Oaks and Houston country clubs.) Below Shepherd, Buffalo Bayou Park between Memorial Drive and Allen Parkway was stripped, graded, and “realigned” by the Corps of Engineers between 1952 and 1959. (p. 592)

 

Buffalo Bayou Below Shepherd

Allowed to overgrow in the intervening years, since 2010 the banks of the bayou in Buffalo Bayou Park have been repeatedly stripped, graded, “improved” and “repaired” by the Flood Control District, with large trees and native vegetation removed for irrigated landscaping and “channel conveyance,” resulting in further erosion and bank failure (and tree loss).

In 2015 more large trees were removed and the bank bulldozed for installation of two massive City of Houston stormwater outfalls draining Shepherd Drive at the intersection of Allen Parkway. In the last year, a growing sinkhole in that area (in the vicinity of what was once a natural tributary to the bayou) has damaged both of the new 84-inch stormwater pipes and caused the sidewalk to collapse, threatening the parkway. Repairs are costing at least $1.2 million, according to Erin Jones, public information officer for the City of Houston Public Works Department.

This is not the “fault” of the bayou, which does what rivers naturally do. Engineers, well paid with public funds, should have anticipated these issues, which began before Harvey.

Removing trees and vegetation, bulldozing, grading, irrigating, breaking up and compacting the soil destabilizes the bank of a river and destroys its ability to cleanse and absorb water and nourish beneficial plants.

 

Repairing the collapsed bank and damaged stormwater pipes resulting from a large sinkhole below Allen Parkway at Shepherd Drive. Photo by SC on Aug. 19, 2019

 

More Funds to Repair Repairs

Currently, the District is spending $9.7 million in federal funds to repair the constantly eroding banks in the park. Save Buffalo Park has asked the District for information on how it plans to “repair” the banks and urged the District to consider the fact that the straightened bayou will continue to try to restore its meanders, eating away at the banks. So far the District has not responded. But a reliable source reports the planned repair methods include sheet pile walls, which are environmentally damaging and deflect flooding and the erosive force of the water downstream and towards the opposite bank, among other problems. Also they’re ugly.

 

Moving Upstream: Above Buffalo Bayou Park

In the long winding stretch between Shepherd Bridge near the center of the city and Beltway 8 out west, there are five locations where, sometime after the early 1950s, the bayou was channelized or bypass channels constructed around meanders (p. 46):

  1. For about 250 feet downstream of the West Beltway 8 bridge
  2. Immediately upstream or west of Gessner Drive
  3. Around Mott Lane in Piney Point Village
  4. Beneath San Felipe Road west of Voss Road
  5. Beneath Farther Point Bridge just west of Chimney Rock Road

 

Above Beltway 8

Between Beltway 8 and the dams farther upstream, the bayou was stripped, channelized, and straightened in the 1950s. As mentioned above, this six-mile stretch of the river is now Terry Hershey Park, owned by the Flood Control District. Recently, after years of resistance from park users, neighborhood residents, and environmentalists, the district cut down the trees on the south bank, graded the slopes, and bulldozed shallow detention basins there. In the 1990s the District had done this on the north bank, which is now virtually shadeless, covered with mowed turf grass, which is useless for slowing, absorbing, and cleansing stormwater runoff.

The stated purpose of the three basins on the south bank is to briefly hold stormwater overflowing the bayou (in what would have been, prior to channelization, the bayou’s natural floodplain or even the channel itself). The small amount of temporary stormwater detention created is intended to mitigate increased flow into the bayou from future City of Houston drainage projects. This project, together with initial contracts to remove sediment in four channels flowing into Addicks Reservoir, is costing some $13.3 million in Harris County funds, according to Karen Hastings, communications manager for Flood Control. Lecon Inc. has the $13.3 million contract.

 

This area, razed and graded for a detention basin on the south bank of Terry Hershey Park, was once part of a rolling, wooded public area with paths along Buffalo Bayou. Photo by SC on Sept. 21, 2019

 

Dredge And Dredge Again

Addicks and Barker dams were built on the prairie in the late 1940s for flood control. Within the reservoirs, which are normally dry, the streams, including most of Buffalo Bayou, remain relatively natural, flowing freely through the floodgates, which stand open until there is a significant rain downstream. However, as noted in the District’s recent public meetings (see below), there is pressure from the District and other agencies to dredge the streams flowing through the reservoirs, which are large public parks.

Upstream of the reservoirs, where homes also flooded badly during Harvey, the bayou and the streams that ultimately flow into it were stripped and channelized decades ago during development of subdivisions. The Flood Control District recently held meetings about their multi-million dollar project to clear these altered channels of sediment and “restore them to their original design capacity.” Apparently that means a trapezoidal shape (basic ditch design), according to Travis Sellers, senior vice president of IDS Engineering, the company responsible for studying and designing the channel dredging project. (Modern ditch design, however, is a two-stage ditch allowing for native vegetation to slow and cleanse polluted urban or agricultural runoff.)

 

Buffalo Bayou at Mason Road in July 2018 after dredging to remove silt a couple of years earlier. Photo by Adam

 

Does Dredging Work?

Sellers, in answer to questions during the Oct. 3 public meeting about dredging streams flowing into Addicks Reservoir, insisted that the dredging would only increase the storage capacity of the stream “so that it doesn’t flood neighbors downstream.” Increasing the capacity of the streams would have no impact on the amount of water flowing into the overburdened Addicks Reservoir, Sellers claimed.

Part of a river’s natural function is to transport sediment, especially during storm events. Silt and sand carried by rivers, including Buffalo Bayou and its tributaries, ends up rebuilding banks and replenishing beaches on the coast.

Dredging, deepening and widening streams are controversial practices, largely because they increase flooding and erosion, destabilize streams, damage the ecosystem, and only lead to more maintenance, among other things. When the river channel is too wide, for example, the water slows and sediment falls out. As an alternative, some experts recommend focusing on the source of sediment. In the case of streams in west Houston, Sellers agreed that development and uncontrolled runoff from construction sites was a likely source

Here are links to the Facebook video of the Oct. 3 meeting and to the slide presentation about dredging streams flowing into Addicks Reservoir.

Here are links to the Facebook video of the Oct. 7 meeting about dredging streams flowing into Barker Reservoir and to the slide presentation.

 

SC

Harris County Flood Control work in June 2018 on South Mayde Creek, once a winding wooded stream, which flows into Addicks Reservoir. Photo by Diane Masterson

Power and Will: Eminent Domain for Preserving Land and Surviving Floods

The Moral Hazard in a Golf Course

 

May 18, 2018

Mention “eminent domain” and ugly associations come to mind. The brutal power of the state. Taking homes and beloved ranch and farm land for development of oil pipelines, highways, powerlines, private for-profit rail lines. Destroying neighborhoods in the name of “urban renewal.” Condemnation.

But what if the government instead used its power of eminent domain to preserve undeveloped land urgently needed for stormwater detention and green space? It can do that. Other cities have done that. Why, the government can even use this power to preserve much needed affordable housing, say for people displaced by flooding. Local governments elsewhere are doing that. (See New York City and Richmond, California.)

Recently there has been controversy over the City of Houston’s role in allowing residential development on more than 100 acres of an unused golf course on Gessner Road in west Houston just east of Addicks Reservoir. Discussion has focused on the folly (and taxpayer burden) of constructing (federally-insured) homes in a floodplain.

But the more critical issue is that local golf courses, including this particular golf course, have been identified as one of the few remaining sources of undeveloped land vitally needed for detaining stormwater and reducing flooding in our highly developed city.

The golf course in question, Pine Crest, drains into Brickhouse Gully, which in turn drains into White Oak Bayou. Both streams are among the top ten fastest rising streams by flow in the state of Texas, according to a recent study by hydrologist Matthew Berg. Also in the top ten is Cole Creek, which flows into the same spot, pointed out Berg in a recent interview.

The decision to allow development of this open space, instead of using it for stormwater detention, is a prime example of creating a moral hazard: placing people in harm’s way knowing that others will pick up the tab for the damages.

No Dispute: This Green Space Is Urgently Needed to Hold Rain Runoff

The 150-acre site of the former Pine Crest golf course on Gessner and Clay roads in west Houston. Culvert in upper right drains into Brickhouse Gully, which has one of the fastest rising streamflows in Texas. Google Earth image Oct. 28, 2017

 

Neighborhoods along all of these streams have experienced repeated flooding, reported the Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium, a group of local scientific experts organized after Harvey. The consortium recommended creating detention, among other remedies, along these streams in its recently released report. (p. 44)

The city or the flood control district should have bought the golf course land for flood detention. “It’s much cheaper and easier than buying out houses,” said Berg, who noted that the area is “the most developed watershed in the Houston region.”

“If I had known that this piece of land was on the open market, I definitely would have at least tried to make an offer to acquire it for detention,” said Matt Zeve, as reported by the Houston Chronicle. Zeve has been director of operations for the Harris County Flood Control District since November of 2015.

The land has been for sale on the open market since 2015. To make it more saleable, the flood control district has been working with the property owner, MetroNational, since at least mid-2013 to reduce the land’s flood hazard designation.

The company, a major developer in west Houston, bought the land in 1985 and completed the golf course in 1992. It was having trouble selling the land, which sat some two feet underwater in the 100-year floodplain — an area that floods during a 100-year rain event. A 100-year event is defined locally as just over 13 inches in 24 hours or just under 11 inches in 12 hours, though these long outdated definitions are changing. (Our last three floods are defined as 500-year-floods or even greater: some describe Harvey as a 1000-5,000-20,000-year flood.) With the approval of the flood control district, a plan was drawn up to engineer the land out of the 100-year floodplain, according to documents obtained through a Public Information request by a member of  Residents Against Flooding.

By the beginning of 2017, the majority of the land was sold to Arizona-based Meritage Homes, which plans to build some 800-900 homes there. MetroNational plans to build a commercial development on the remaining 35 acres.

Forward Thinking? Politicians Choose the Moral Hazard

Meritage has begun some drainage work, including large concrete culverts to divert runoff into the already overburdened Brickhouse Gully. But the city or county could still buy the golf course. They could and should also buy other agricultural land already platted for development out west, where stormwater runoff is threatening to drown the city by overwhelming the federal dams on Buffalo Bayou, our main river flowing for some 50 miles from the Katy Prairie through the center of Houston, becoming the Houston Ship Channel and emptying into Galveston Bay. (White Oak Bayou, like most of our bayous and streams, is a tributary of Buffalo Bayou, joining it downtown.)

Increased development and unprecedented rain forced the emergency opening of the dams’ floodgates during Harvey in August 2017.  The disaster flooded thousands of homes along the bayou, destroying thousands of lives and killing three people. It was merely a foreshadowing of what could come.

The politicians have the power. What’s needed is the will.

“We’re not going to get any more of these,” said Berg. “The opportunities are extremely limited.”

It’s a classic moral hazard, of privatizing the profits and socializing the losses. Local authorities make planning decisions putting residents in harm’s way and leave it up to the federal taxpayers to pick up the tab for the damage.

“When … local governments do not share in the liabilities when a disaster occurs, they become incentivized by increased developments and tax revenue to continue making poor land-use decisions,” wrote the American Society of Civil Engineers in a 2014 report criticizing the National Flood Insurance Program, which will provide taxpayer-subsidized flood insurance for the houses built in the golf course/floodplain. “This is not sustainable.” (p. 24)

The engineers’ report, which called for a national flood risk management strategy, also criticized the “tendency, for both historical and psychological reasons, to place greater reliance on traditional structural measures [dams and reservoirs, digging up bayous, for example] even though in the long run nonstructural and nature-based measures tend to be more efficient and sustainable solutions.” (p. 27)

For the Public Use: If Not Now, When?

 

  • Bridgeland Development office west of the Grand Parkway in the Cypress Creek overflow area between the creek to the north and Addicks Reservoir to the southeast.
  • Harris County Flood Control District map showing the flood zones in the area platted for development by Bridgeland west of the Grand Parkway. Dark blue is floodway. Light blue is 100-year flood zone. Green is 500-year flood zone. Pink dot is Bridgeland office.

 

Eminent domain is intended to be used for the public good. It is the power of the state, granted to the county and city, the flood control district, along with numerous other agencies public and semi-private, to purchase property at a fair market price from an unwilling owner for a public use.

Eminent domain is NOT buying out homes deep in flood hazard areas that continually flood, though just recently use of eminent domain has been mentioned by officials frustrated by the slow pace of the buyout process. Local buyouts are generally funded partly with federal funds, largely Federal Emergency Management Agency funds, and the federal government does not allow the use of FEMA funds for eminent domain. FEMA does encourage the use of eminent domain, using local public and private funds, when necessary for flood protection and creation of public green space (p. 17), and even promotes the benefits of acquisition. (pp. 12-13) Buyouts, however, usually conducted by the Harris County Flood Control District, are voluntary. 

Forcing the Sale of Land for Open Space Even After Partial Development

In 2006 the New Jersey Supreme Court upheld the right of Mount Laurel Township to force a residential developer to sell the township 16.3 acres of land that was zoned for residential use.  The developer, MiPro Homes, received a permit for development of 23 single family homes on May 9, 2002. The heavily developed and congested township, with overburdened schools and desperately in need of breathing room, had attempted to negotiate a purchase of the property as part of its open space acquisition program. The developer refused to sell and immediately upon receipt of the permit began preparing the site for development. The township quickly filed a condemnation action against the developer, which continued preparing the site until the township filed a declaration of taking on May 31, 2002. Four years later the state supreme court held that “a municipality has statutory authority to condemn property for open space, and its selection of properties on which residential development is planned is a proper exercise of the eminent domain power.”

The Money

A frequent argument in favor of development at all cost is that the cash-strapped (and park-poor) city desperately needs the improved property tax base for revenue. (Property taxes account for nearly half of the city’s general fund revenues. p. 4) But a long-known fact is that parks and green space also improve the value of surrounding property – by as much as 15 percent, according to the City Parks Alliance.  There’s also the cost savings in stormwater management, air pollution reduction, and health benefits, as well as the significant reduction in property and personal losses from flooding. Perhaps we should consider reduced loss of reputation for the city as well. Houston, by the way, ranks 81 out of the top 100 U.S. cities in park space, spending, and accessibility, according to the Trust for Public Land. The city ranks number one in severe repetitive property losses to flooding.

Some even argue that suburban residential development is a net drain on the city budget over the long term due to the cost of maintaining and replacing basic services and infrastructure. Charles Marohn, an engineer and founder of Strong Towns, calls it “an illusion of wealth.” He also has written specifically about Houston and Harvey.

How Much Would It Cost?

In January 2017 the Harris County Appraisal District assigned a market value to the MetroNational Pine Crest golf course land at around $18,000 an acre. So purchasing the 150-acre property could cost about $2.7 million.

What about the prairie land out west already platted and continuously being platted for development along the Grand Parkway north and west of Addicks Reservoir? Much of this land is in what’s called the Cypress Creek overflow area, some 21,000 acres of mostly agricultural land that is difficult to develop because it is inundated by as much as several feet of runoff overflowing from Cypress Creek to the north during storms.

Most of this runoff, some 23,355 acre-feet or 2.7 billion gallons during your basic heavy (100-year) storm, (p. 14) within two to three days eventually ends up in Addicks Reservoir on Buffalo Bayou, which couldn’t handle the rain from Harvey, much less increased runoff from development of land currently providing some form of detention. Addicks, like Barker, a normally dry reservoir used for flood control, can hold 130,203 acre-feet of stormwater before it starts flooding the subdivisions developers built close behind it.

To solve the problem of extracting profit from land being inundated by the overflow (and the separate problem of serious flooding downstream on Cypress Creek) politicians and developers are proposing costly engineering projects like $400 million for a Third Reservoir or even maybe a Fourth somewhere out there on Cypress Creek. Such dam projects, however, would be a federal responsibility through the Corps of Engineers. There are also wild ideas for building underground tunnels, canals, and widening and straightening Buffalo Bayou to let more water drain faster out of the dams. Then there are more practical proposals for a levee along the back of the reservoirs to protect the homes built inside the flood pools and for dredging and deepening the reservoirs themselves. (The latter, however, is also a federal responsibility.)  These projects would cost billions to build, millions to repair and maintain. And in the case of new dams, like our old dams, they also hold the certainty of aging and of becoming inadequate, and the possibility of future failure.

The Harris County Appraisal District assigned a January 2018 market value of $7,679.50 an acre to agricultural land owned by Bridgeland Development Corp. west of the Grand Parkway between Cypress Creek and Addicks Reservoir. Bridgeland, which is managed by The Woodlands Development Company, is a division of the Howard Hughes Corp. Bridgeland, which has already developed residential subdivisions east of the parkway, owns a significant amount of the land in the Cypress Creek overflow area.

So buying all 21,000 acres in the overflow area could cost about $161 million. A lot cheaper than building reservoirs, canals, or tunnels or deepening and widening Buffalo Bayou, which experts agree doesn’t work to reduce flood risk anyway. And what a beautiful park we could have­— our native prairie once had grasses that stood eight-feet tall!

This park, which if restored (restoration cost estimate not included) to a mix of one-third wetland and two-thirds grassland prairie (pp. 872-873) could store naturally as much as 50,000 acre-feet of stormwater.

That’s almost double the amount of storage provided by a theoretical reservoir. (pp. 296-298)

Harris County is planning to hold a vote on August 25 for a bond issue to provide some $2.5 billion for flood reduction projects. County commissioners haven’t yet decided what to spend it on.

Perhaps we can help them.

 

 

 

 

Early Fall on That Bend in the Bayou

Time is Passing

Oct. 8, 2021

We’d just had a big storm, a hurricane actually, named Nicholas. Its big winds tore up the trees and ripped out power lines, leaving tottering poles and a hundred thousand people without electricity up and down the Gulf Coast, including in Houston.

It also brought in our loyal photographer, native Texan Jim Olive, who blew in from the dry California desert, where the daytime temperatures had been well over 100 degrees. The plan was to take our fall shot of that Bend in the River, the same location on Buffalo Bayou that we’d been photographing throughout the seasons for seven years now.

Early fall 2021 on that bend in the bayou, looking downstream from a high bank in Memorial Park with the River Oaks Country Club opposite. Photo by Jim Olive on Sept. 17, 2021

We met at sunrise at the east entrance to the Picnic Loop south of Memorial Drive, where the massive $70 million land bridges are still under construction. The park gates, usually open, were closed, apparently due to possible falling limbs and tree damage from the storm. But helmeted cyclists were shoving their slim bikes through the gates anyway and hikers were slipping through.

Big Jim recently had had major surgery and had spent quite a bit of time laid up. The prospect of walking through the morning heat to our spot was daunting. But he soldiered down the curving drive and into the woods.

A Changing Scene

The popular path into the bayou woods was still blocked by the Memorial Park Conservancy with wire fencing and branches. But the much-used dirt path through the woods itself seemed changed. There had been a big storm after all, and there was debris—leaves and tree limbs—blocking the narrow trail, which usually was kept clear by anonymous volunteers. It was difficult to tell how much of the debris blockage had been caused by the winds and how much might have been placed there by park employees.

The bayou banks were remarkably green and lush. The sediment-laden water was flowing fairly high and fast, around 800 cubic feet per second. We stood patiently on the high bank, listening to the sounds of the woods and water. The sun rose over the tall trees, big oaks and pines. The assistant wandered off, as usual. Jim got his beautiful shots, miraculously without tumbling over the steep, high bank and into the fast-flowing stream. But then, once out of the woods, he opted to rest, wait by the paved loop, and watch the cyclists whiz past. Years ago Jim also used to bike regularly, every morning two or three times a week, around this loop, as well as around the trails in Buffalo Bayou Park, then shaded with overhanging trees. Afterwards he and his physically fit friends would swim a mile or so in the nearby Masterson YWCA pool that used to be on Waugh near the bayou.

Cyclists on the Picnice Loop in Memorial Park just after sunrise on Sept. 17, 2021. Photo by Jim Olive

The assistant hurried to fetch the car, hoping the gates were now open. They were not. So, anxious about Jim, she jogged back along the road and splashed through the soggy grass field towards some park employees with an electric cart inspecting the trees. Cyclists circling around the loop kept an eye on Jim, who was out in the sun.

The assistant approached the conservancy staffers, waving her arms and calling out for help transporting the photographer back to the car. The answer was no. Only park employees allowed in the electric cart. But they did offer to unlock the gate so that the assistant could take the time to hurry back, get the car, drive it into the park, and pick up Jim.

Well, we were grateful for that, at least. Jim, who has donated numerous photographs to the Memorial Park Conservancy, survived. (He also happens to be a trained emergency medical technician.) The assistant was steamed. We continued on for our traditional breakfast taco at Sunrise Taquitos down the road.

We’ve asked the Conservancy, a private foundation which runs the public park on behalf of the City, for its rules and guidance on medical and other emergencies in the park. We’ll update our report when we hear back.

SC

Looking upstream from the high bank in Memorial Park with the River Oaks Country Club golf course across the way. Photo by Jim Olive on Sept. 17, 2021

The creek that flows from the center of the park near the golf course, under Memorial Drive and through the woods, as it enters Buffalo Bayou just downstream from the bend. Photo by SC on Sept. 17, 2021

Late Fall on that Bend in the Bayou

Jim Olive Returns

Nov. 12, 2020

We could say it was late fall by some calendar. If we actually had fall here in Houston, where the temperatures are still summerish, ten degrees above normal, and the leaves fall in the spring. Our devoted photographer, Jim Olive, has been exiled to the edge of the California desert where the temperatures until the end of October have been frequently over 100 degrees.

But recently he was able to return to take the Fall 2020 photograph of that Bend in the Bayou we’ve been documenting through the seasons for the last six years. Jim welcomed the relatively cool weather.

Just after sunrise we drove past the depressing monument that serves as the ugly new east entrance to Memorial Park on Memorial Drive. (And was not included in the 2015 Master Plan. p. 61) Apparently our beloved park is now a cemetery as well as a glorification of golf and wealthy developers, who now dominate management of the park.

Monument apparently announcing the death of Memorial Park at the east entrance to the park on Memorial Drive.

While the park at some 1400 acres is frequently touted as being almost twice the size of New York City’s Central Park, with the recent expansion of the golf course and related buildings and the felling of hundreds of trees, less than half of the land is actually the park that it was when it was gifted to the city nearly a century ago on the condition that it remain natural.

The private Memorial Park Conservancy is spending some $70 million in public and private funds cutting down massive, mature loblolly pines, among other great trees, to make way for their glamorous land bridges. Neighborhood residents report seeing fleeing wildlife hit by cars and desperately seeking shelter in backyards. However, the land bridge/tunnels are sure to attract magazine publicity and landscape architect awards, helping to promote the Uptown/Galleria district, which is now actually running development of the historic park.

The foot of a big loblolly pine on the bank of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park. Photo by SC Nov. 6, 2020

But for now the wild woods and trails on the south side near the bayou remain, despite efforts by the Conservancy to block public access. As the central entrance was closed for construction of the land bridges, we entered the park south of Memorial through the crowded, recently opened east gate on the Picnic Loop. We circled around the apparently no longer maintained picnic area with its moldy restrooms, boggy grass, and graceful clusters of oaks dripping with moss, wondering how many of these elegant trees will remain. According to the 2015 Master Plan, this area is to become a Pine-Hardwood Savannah. (p. 88)

We parked and made our way around the offensive fencing put up by the Conservancy to block hikers from using public trails through our public bayou woods that have been open for many decades. Trail users elsewhere in the park have expressed their displeasure with these arbitrary barricades.

Wooden railing and “No Entry” sign tossed into a ravine in Memorial Park. Photo SC Oct. 29, 2020

Stepping along the winding, narrow dirt path, we passed the 100-year-old cement remnants of sewer lines from Camp Logan, the World War II military training camp and hospital set up in the woods and prairie next to the bayou, part of which became Memorial Park. We’d once seen a huge rat snake coiled up in the pipes. And another time we encountered a beautiful coral snake slithering across the path here.

The huge log that once lay across the path has now completely disintegrated. And a rotting loblolly snag once inscribed with the name “Jesus” inside a heart has been cut down.

Despite the elaborate fencing and many signs warning this was not a trail, the soft footpath was clearly well used and even maintained. Mushrooms were growing. Animals burrowing.

Bottle garden next to the trail through the bayou woods. Photo SC Oct. 29, 2020

We reached our customary spot on the high bank. Part of the bank had collapsed, the face slumping down, the roots of plants sticking out. Some people think this is damage and we have to do something to fix it. Other people think this is a natural process, that the bayou can fix itself.

But hardening banks with concrete, for instance, can cause bank erosion elsewhere. It’s a good idea to observe Best Management Practices on riverbanks.

The bayou is naturally widening here, adjusting to increased flows. The river is much more visible and closer to the trail. Based on Google Earth, a rough estimate is that the top of the channel in April 2014 was around 109 feet from upper bank to upper bank. In Dec. 2019 from bank to bank the distance was approximately 150 feet.

The Corps of Engineers wants to widen the channel even further–to 230 feet, and dig the sandstone bottom nearly 12 feet deeper. Be sure to send in your comments about that before Nov. 20. We’ll have more insight for you soon.

Here is Jim’s beautiful fall photo of the bend and another photo looking upstream where the River Oaks Country Club has bulldozed the historic bank and trees and installed concrete and sheet pile, no doubt contributing to increased erosion of the banks in the park across the way.

Looking downstream on Buffalo Bayou from a high bank in Memorial Park with the River Oaks Country Club golf course opposite. Photo by Jim Olive, Nov. 6, 2020

Looking upstream from the same high bank showing roots holding slumped bank and natural sandstone in the stream. Photo by Jim Olive, Nov. 6, 2020

Send your thoughts, comments and concerns about Memorial Park and the Master Plan to comments@memorialparkconservancy.org

And be sure to check out the entire series of Jim’s amazing photographs of our living bayou, A Bend in the River.

SC

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
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