Turning Green Space Into Green Bucks on Buffalo Bayou
Should Land Meant for a Needed Park on Buffalo Bayou Be Developed into Needed Housing?
Why is a nonprofit park organization developing green space into for-profit housing?
February 27, 2020
A prominent nonprofit organization has unveiled a plan to profit by building mixed-income housing on open, partially forested land that had long been designated for a nature park on Buffalo Bayou east of downtown Houston.
The long-term, multi-phase plan is to construct apartments, townhouses, and single-family homes on some 18 acres of partially-wooded green space on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou in Houston’s historic East End neighborhood. The Houston City Council last week voted to approve the first phase of the project known as Lockwood South: 120 apartments including 90 units for low-income tenants and 30 market-rate units.
But in a city, and in particular a neighborhood, severely lacking the beneficial access to natural areas (baseball fields, water slides, and running tracks don’t count), might it not be a better idea to locate the housing development elsewhere and develop a bayou park with trees and natural habitat instead?
That was the plan for the property dating from at least 2002. The planned 52-acre park, including adjacent industrial land, was to be named West Lockwood Park, and it was supposed to have been developed by now. (pp. 133, 140, 149)
Community Priorities: More Nature
Experience of nature was a priority expressed by members of the largely working-class community who attended packed community meetings about plans for the neighborhood in 2018.
While residents expressed concerns about the increasing cost of housing and preserving one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, their top priorities were for natural areas, access to the bayou and parks, soft footpaths focused on nature, shade, bird habitat (specifically on this property), urban forest, “protect nature as much as possible,” and so on.
The neighborhood is largely industrial with heavy pollution from industrial and chemical waste and emissions. (pp 27-31) Across from the proposed development site on Lockwood Drive are an asphalt factory and recycled concrete crushing plant, both potential sources of harmful pollution. On the west side of the property is a machine parts factory.
The Second Ward, where the proposed development property is located, in 2015 had 13,139 residents and currently has some 58.99 acres of parkland, mostly mowed grass and playing fields. The City says that’s more than enough. Using the common metric and excellent goal of “living within a ten-minute walk,” the City calculates that 87 percent of Second Ward residents live within a ten-minute walk of a park, no matter what type, compared to 47 percent of Houstonians. (p. 42) However, a drawback to that metric is that 1,000 people could live in highrises surrounding a one-acre park, even a skate-park, and you would have a lot of people crowding around a tiny plot of concrete within a 10-minute walk.
The National Recreation and Park Association, which supports the Ten-Minute Walk campaign, recommends 10 acres of park per 1,000 residents. By that calculation, the Second Ward community should have some 130 acres of park.
The public can send comments on the proposed development project to the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs. See below.
Developing and Appreciating Buffalo Bayou
The land development scheme is a project of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, a private nonprofit founded in 1986 for “redevelopment and stewardship of the waterfront” from Shepherd Drive to the Port of Houston Turning Basin. The organization, which has partnered with Brinshore Development of Northfield, Illinois, for the housing project, says the plan will generate funds for expansion and improvement of other parks in the neighborhood, primarily Tony Marron Park just upstream (west) of the property. The Partnership plans to spend $40 million on Tony Marron Park and expand it by 30 acres, according to a letter sent in January 2019 to the East End Management District.
Tracking a Legal Mystery in the Park
Not-a-Trail Signs Cite Not-a-Law
“Reference is a Mistake”
February 9, 2020
We have some progress on the thorny issue of the signs posted on recently closed trails in Memorial Park. The signs cited a Texas law against destruction of public property that doesn’t exist, a non-existent law—”Title 19, Chapter 191 of the Government Code of Texas”—that oddly has been cited by a variety of public agencies for years, including the Houston Parks Department, the Harris County Houston Sports Authority, the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, among others.
We are not in favor of destroying public property, whether that be by developers, private foundations, individuals, public agencies, country clubs or anybody else. But can you see a problem of definition here? What constitutes destruction of public property? Walking through public woods? Bulldozing trees on public land? Installing sheet pile walls and riprap on the banks of the bayou that are known to increase flooding and erosion across and down the way?
Researching the Appropriate Reference
In any case, the Harris County Attorney’s Office was just as puzzled as we were about the citation of a non-existent state law. The Houston City Attorney didn’t respond to several queries, likely because they had no response. We had to call in some big guns, like newly-elected City Councilmember Abbie Kamin, who represents District C, which includes Memorial Park.
This took a few weeks. But the mayor’s Deputy Chief of Staff James Koski graciously looked into it for us. “We are aware that the reference on the old sign is a mistake,” he wrote in a recent email. “Legal is researching what the appropriate reference to state code or city ordinance will be for signage going forward.”
In the meantime, the signs are still there.
Unofficial but Popular Footpaths
The dirt paths are unofficial trails through the lovely woods, up-and-down ravines and along the high banks above Buffalo Bayou on the southern edge of the park. They have long been used and maintained by hikers and runners, even after they were officially closed to bikers years ago.
We wish the Memorial Park Conservancy would remove the signs and fencing. The trails here are no more dangerous than official trails in other parts of the park.
It’s true the storms and flooding of the last few years have eaten away at the banks, though parts of the banks are slowly rebuilding naturally. They would be rebuilding and self-restoring even faster if contractors working for the Harris County Flood Control District hadn’t removed so many trees and woody debris from sides of the channel after Harvey.
Hardening the country club bank across the way, increasing the velocity of the flow and sending it pounding into the opposite bank, is not helping either.