Historic Banks of Memorial Park to Be Radically Altered
April 6, 2021
The private organization running Houston’s great public Memorial Park on the forested banks of Buffalo Bayou is developing a plan to bulldoze and landscape the ancient high banks, channelize and reroute the bayou, cutting off long-standing meanders in a way that seems to shift a significant amount of public land to private owners.
Ironically, the alleged purpose of the project is in part to reduce the loss of public property, according to Carolyn White, the recently departed conservation director for the Memorial Park Conservancy.
The focus of this initial intervention is a little-known but historic section of the park west of Loop 610 known as the Old Archery Range, a long-neglected and poorly maintained wooded section of the park off Woodway Drive. (Some maps do not even include it as part of Memorial Park.)
A tentative plan promoted by White, who previously worked for the Harris County Flood Control District, proposes to raze and scrape nearly half of it.
In a recent presentation to Save Buffalo Bayou, White described the natural slumping of the high banks as lost property, though it would seem the proposed grading of the banks would result in a similar though far more drastic slope, along with considerable structural damage to the soil through disturbance and compaction by heavy equipment. (p. 14) (Not to mention the crushing loss of aquatic life and habitat.)
The high banks of Buffalo Bayou are prone to slumping (and naturally rebuilding), and there has been considerable loss of trees and widening and shifting of the upper channel in recent years. (Trees normally fall onto the slumped banks and remain there to collect sediment, naturally rebuild and protect the bank, and create habitat.) The first great meander in the archery range, which would be sliced in two by proposals under consideration, appears to have narrowed even in just the last few years.
But the general configuration of the sandstone-lined channel flowing past the park has remained pretty much the same for hundreds of years. (See, for instance, the 1898 survey on pp. 12 and 13 compared to the image above and this 1840 survey further downstream.) See also the footnote below from a letter written in 2014 by landscape architect Janet Wagner, then chair of the Harris County Historical Commission, to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Rumors had been swirling for over a year about the Conservancy’s interest in “stabilizing” the bayou banks in the Old Archery Range. Once containing nature trails, a 19th century nursery and brickworks, a farmhouse, a Boy Scout camp, and the archery range for which it is named, the 20-25-acre wooded site is the location of the park’s only boat ramp, part of Texas Parks and Wildlife’s 26-mile long Buffalo Bayou paddle trail. The ramp, actually a giant, badly designed, and constantly eroding stormwater outfall, is situated near the early 19th century sandstone ford known as Dutchman’s Crossing, used by settlers heading west. (p. 5)
Cost, Length, Purpose
The Conservancy, together with the Uptown Development Authority, has hired the engineering firm Stantec at a cost of $500,000 to explore plans to “reduce channel erosion” and “improve habitat,” while landscaping and building trails, initially along some 2,700 feet of bank, according to documents provided by Randy Odinet, vice president for Capital Improvement Projects with the Conservancy.
Erosion and deposition are natural functions of living streams, and dynamic streams are healthier, cleaner and more biologically diverse.
Note also as with virtually all meanders in Buffalo Bayou, flow naturally cuts across the meanders in the Old Archery Range during high water. But the Conservancy is contemplating spending a great deal of money to cut artificial channels through the meanders, an idea rejected by the Harris County Flood Control District.
As a recent study of urban parks found, city residents want and need “wildness” in their parks. We need to be able to observe and interact with nature, to be able to study and learn about our natural history.
Stantec is a national specialist in the lucrative and controversial business of “stabilizing” and “restoring” streams, in particular using “natural channel design,” a pseudo-scientific but widely used methodology developed by Dave Rosgen in the 1990s. Natural channel design was the basis of the flawed Memorial Park Demonstration Project that would have razed the trees and vegetation, dredged, bulldozed and reshaped some 1.25 miles of the bayou past the park further downstream.
The same local Stantec team, headed by Betty Leite, is in charge of a project to “stabilize” the forested banks below the Bayou Bend, Collection and Gardens owned by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. We have asked for more information about this project and will have a report soon.
Bayou Bend, just downstream from Memorial Park, is the former home of the late Ima Hogg, who donated the large home and garden, along with the 15.5-acre woods of the Hogg Bird Sanctuary on the opposite bank. Hogg and her family arranged for the City of Houston to purchase at cost the more than 1,500 acres that became Memorial Park in 1924. Hogg intended for the park to remain as natural as possible.
Unfortunately years of poor management practice at Bayou Bend, including planting short-rooted monkey grass and other exotics on the bank, paving the top of the bank and building on it, irrigating the bank and draining stormwater directly onto it, have contributed to bank collapse.
Left for Dead
Harris County Flood Control District uses its own version of “natural stable channel design” as an excuse to strip and channelize streams all over the county. The district’s “natural stable channel design” project in Buffalo Bayou Park downstream of the Shepherd Bridge has resulted in endless repairs and a once vibrant stream now lined with concrete chunks like a dead drainage ditch.
This initial project in the Old Archery Range is no doubt only the beginning of an effort to bulldoze and landscape the historic banks of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park. Soon there will be no life remaining in the bayou. With the massive crime perpetrated on the bayou by the River Oaks Country Club opposite the park, the Houston Parks Board’s recent pointless project downstream of the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, the museum’s planned work at Bayou Bend, and the vast amount of the bayou now lined with concrete rubble by Harris County Flood Control and countless private projects, there will soon be little left of our living bayou.
On August 4, 2014, landscape architect Janet Wagner wrote the following about Buffalo Bayou to the National Trust for Historic Preservation:
The alignment of Buffalo Bayou, fronting along the Hogg Bird Sanctuary and upstream along Memorial Park, exhibits a historic land formation documented in 1840 Harris County Surveyor George H. Bringhurst. He traveled several days along the north side of Buffalo Bayou (now Memorial Park) beginning at Shepherd Drive to beyond Dutchman’s Crossing (near Woodway Bridge). Bringhurst’s survey mapping along the bayou ridge matches the current alignment of Buffalo Bayou meanders, giving rise that the present bayou bank pattern is well over 175 years old. The alluvial nature of the old Archery Range dates the Range alignment to 12,000 years. A canoe trip down Buffalo Bayou or visit to Memorial Park reveals a step back in time that is outstanding for stream preservation, education and reverence to historic vistas.