State of the Bayou
Downed Trees. New Channel. New Riprap. Washed Out Sidewalks, Beavers, and Turtles
But Some Banks Naturally Rebuilding
Does It Make Sense to Repair?
Sept. 1, 2016
Updated Sept. 11, 2016
You could not step twice into the same river. Heraclitus
We finally had a chance recently to float down beautiful Buffalo Bayou to see how things have changed. Our trip took us past Memorial Park in the middle of Houston. We also biked along the bayou through Terry Hershey Park far upstream in west Houston below the dams to see what was happening there.
The good news is that some of the high banks that had slumped in Memorial Park and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary during the Memorial Day 2015 flooding are naturally rebuilding.
The bad news is that the River Oaks Country Club has added more riprap to the south bank, hard armoring the bank with ugly, damaging concrete rubble, including where it should not be.
Nature’s Miraculous Way of Restoring. For Free.
Houston has had multiple record-breaking rains and flooding since the spring of 2015. When Buffalo Bayou overflows its high banks, as it did in the Memorial Day flood of 2015, the banks in places sometimes slump or slide away. This happens when the overflowing water seeps through the ground and saturates layers of sandy clay that liquefy, sometimes causing the bank to give way. Buffalo Bayou is 18,000 years old, and this has been happening for a very long time.
This natural tendency to slump is one reason why we think attempting to engineer these banks as proposed by the $6 million Memorial Park Demonstration Project won’t work. It’s also the reason why we think building and repeatedly repairing sidewalks at the bayou’s edge is wasteful and foolish.
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, which provoked 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.
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 archives of the Museum of Fine Arts, 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.
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
March 29, 2015
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.
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.”
The Blinged-Out Master Plan for Memorial Park
City Council Quality of Life Committee Should Send Expensive, Overdone Master Plan Back to Drawing Board
March 24, 2015
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.
The TIRZ, Parks, and the Texas Constitution
Feb. 27, 2015
Here’s the report from the Feb. 25, 2015, Uptown TIRZ 16 board meeting about when the once-a-boat launch on Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park at Woodway might be reopened.
The fenced-off Parks and Wildlife Paddling Trail takeout, referred to by the TIRZ as the “Woodway outfall,” is in need of a guardrail above a steep drop-off, parking reserved for the handicapped, and a gate that allows the park area to be closed at night, according to Sarah Newbery, the TIRZ 16 project director for Memorial Park.
The bayou access point on public land west of Loop 610 has been surrounded by a locked, curtained fence and closed to the public without explanation for almost a year since construction and landscaping were completed on the $1.36 million “erosion control” and drainage improvement project. The larger park area, known as the Old Archery Range, has been closed without explanation for nearly a decade.
The Houston Parks and Recreation Department is reviewing plans for the guardrail, parking, and permanent access gate for the former boat launch, Newbery told the board members meeting on the seventeenth floor of 1980 Post Oak in the Galleria. The TIRZ expects to send the plans out to bids in April and to finish construction by August, Newbery reported.
There will be a sign on the site by next week explaining all this to the public, said Newbery.
But why should the public not have access to the bayou through the park now, since there appears to be no legal or even safety reason why this part of the park should not be open in the meantime? The parks department could erect a temporary guardrail above any drop-off it deems dangerous, as it has done in Buffalo Bayou Park. There’s already a gate and a parking lot.
Update On the Not-A-Boat Launch In Memorial Park at Woodway
Feb. 9, 2015
Rumors have been flying across the concrete prairie and through the riparian woods of Buffalo Bayou that what was once a popular boat launch in Memorial Park at Woodway will be opened again to the public maybe by March or April.
And while we have determined that there is not actually a definite plan yet for opening the once-a-boat-launch, we can confirm that there may be some plans eventually to possibly appropriate some money to build handrails for safety and handicapped access, a proper parking lot, and some other stuff that city officials claim are required to make the longtime, popular no-longer-a boat-launch safe again for the public.
The Uptown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) 16, which in 2013 expanded to include Memorial Park, will consider funding the improvements “required to open the area as a public access point to the bayou,” Sarah Newbery, Memorial Park project director for the TIRZ 16, said in an email. This budget decision will happen at the next board of directors meeting on February 25, 2015, at 3:30 p.m. in Suite 1700, 1980 Post Oak Boulevard, said Newbery.
Why an unelected semi-private entity controls our public park, we don’t know. But the Uptown TIRZ meeting notices and agenda are posted 72 hours prior to the meeting at the Houston City Hall Public Bulletin Board, at the rear entrance of the City Hall Annex, 900 Bagby. So go downtown and park and find the bulletin board and look on it to see what’s on the agenda. There does not seem to be an online notice.
We can tell you that the Uptown TIRZ 16 2015-2019 Capital Improvement Plan includes nothing for the Woodway “drainage/erosion control” project, not even for maintenance, which is a constant problem, since the badly designed (AECOM) outfall collects mud. However, the TIRZ 16 2015 CIP budget includes $9.5 million for “Memorial Park/Buffalo Bayou.”
Parks Department: Take Down That Fence
When is a Public Boat Launch Not a Public Boat Launch?
Nov. 6, 2014
A boat launch is no longer a boat launch after the City spends $1.3 million designing, building, and landscaping it and doesn’t include access for the people and their boats.
That’s the explanation from representatives of the parks department and the Uptown TIRZ 16 for why the once-popular official Parks and Wildlife boat launch at Woodway in our Memorial Park remains fenced-off and closed to the public more than six months after it was transformed into a massive drainage outfall.
Coincidentally, being able to put in at Woodway allows the public to float down Buffalo Bayou through the historic natural area that the City and County want to obliterate. That nearly 1.5-mile stretch of the river further downstream is one of the last remaining wild reaches of our 18,000-year-old mother bayou. So keeping the put-in closed makes it more difficult for people to see the majestic very old cliffs, lovely forested banks, and sandy beaches of this little known wilderness area that will be destroyed.
Officially it’s not a boat launch at all, which is why it is closed, although it might be a boat launch again sometime in the future, according to Rick Dewees, assistant parks department director in charge of Memorial Park, and Sarah Newbery, the Uptown TIRZ 16 project director for the Memorial Park Master Plan. The Uptown TIRZ 16 financed the project at Woodway with taxpayer funds.
But wait, what’s that gently sloping, winding paved ramp leading down to the water?
That’s not for people; that’s only for maintenance trucks, said Dewees. Newbery agreed.
Will the New Memorial Park Master Plan Be for the People?
Nov. 5, 2014
Public Meeting Monday, Nov. 10, 2014, on proposals for a new Memorial Park Master Plan.
The Memorial Park Conservancy, Houston Parks and Recreation Department, and the Uptown Houston TIRZ are holding the second of four community meetings Monday, Nov. 10, 2014, about proposals for a new $1.8 million Memorial Park Master Plan.
The meeting will be from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. in the White Oak Conference Center, 7603 Antoine Drive, 77004.
Go and ask them why they have locked up an entire forested section of our Memorial Park south of Woodway west of 610 and closed off access from there to Buffalo Bayou, access that historically had always been open to the public.
As far as we know, which is not much, the proposals for the new master plan make no mention of Buffalo Bayou. The previous master plan from 2004 recommended that the bayou be left alone as “a symbol of dynamic natural process.”
The 2004 plan reported that “a study of the Bayou’s dynamics and stability concluded that, after adjusting to increased urban runoff and water management structures upstream, the Bayou is vertically and horizontally stable, i.e., it is not deepening its channel nor is it dramatically widening its path.”
The landscape architecture firm of Nelson Byrd Woltz is leading the development of the new master plan. The City of Houston and the Uptown TIRZ plan to spend $100 to $150 million in tax money on capital improvements to the park in the next twenty years. None of that money is for park maintenance.
The Memorial Park Master Plan and the Survival of Buffalo Bayou
Sept. 20, 2014
Nobody wanted to mention the strange plan to bulldoze our wild Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park and they wouldn’t let us put out our flyers at the Memorial Park Conservancy meeting in the El Dorado Ballroom on Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014, to introduce the beginnings of a new master plan for the park. The previous master plan in 2004 recommended that this last remaining stretch of wild bayou be left alone as a valuable educational tool about nature and its dynamic process. The conservancy, a private, non-profit organization charged with protecting and preserving the 1500-acre park, has decided to ignore that recommendation and supports razing the riparian forest, dredging, channelizing, rerouting, and destroying the ecosystem of this stable, functioning reach of the bayou. Because.
Well, few people understand what the purpose of this bizarre project is, and we have talked to some certified geniuses about it. Proponents call it erosion control, flood control, invasive species control, “restoration,” but none of it explains the massive amount of destruction planned or why they are using long-discredited channelizing methods that likely will result in more erosion, more flooding, and the whole artificially reconstructed bayou washing out, along with whatever native vegetation they plant there.
Memorial Park, the Master Plan, and Our Wild Buffalo Bayou
Sept. 15, 2014
Proposals for a new master plan for Memorial Park will be presented at a public meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 17, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Eldorado Ballroom, 2310 Elgin Street. Anyone concerned about the future of our great Memorial Park and Buffalo Bayou as it flows past the park will want to attend this meeting, one of four “update” meetings scheduled about the plan over the next several months.
The prominent national landscape architecture firm of Nelson Byrd Woltz is leading development of the plan. Thomas Woltz, principal of the firm, and his team will share results of their research and analysis, as well as initial design concepts at the Wednesday meeting co-hosted by Houston City Council Members Dwight Boykins and Robert Gallegos.
Do Nothing to Our Wild Bayou is the Best Policy
The last master plan for Memorial Park in 2004 recommended that nothing be done to disturb the natural environment of Buffalo Bayou. After extensive analysis by a team of fluvial geomorphologists and hydraulic engineers, the plan wisely concluded that “the recommended course of action for the Bayou is simply to leave it alone and consider it a symbol of dynamic natural process. The Bayou can serve as a valuable environmental education tool that depicts the change inherent in nature.”
It is not yet known, to us at least, what recommendations the new master plan will make about our treasured last stretch of wild bayou in Houston. However, contradicting the clear conclusions of the 2004 master plan, the Memorial Park Conservancy officially and actively supports the Bayou Preservation Association‘s bizarre project to bulldoze the bayou’s riparian forest, level and grade the banks and cliffs, dredge, channelize, and reroute the bayou. This would forever destroy a valuable and historic natural resource in our great public park, an amazing oasis of riverine wilderness in the middle of the city.