Work is underway, land is being acquired, and money is being raised.
Now, the Houston Parks Board and its public partners hope to revive some of the city’s natural treasures through Bayou Greenways 2020, a 150-mile trail system that, once complete, will wind along the bayous long seen as an interruption to Houston’s urban sprawl.
The initiative is at the heart of a bond package approved by voters last November that will provide $100 million in matching funds to double the number of trails to link existing park space and neighborhoods along the city’s many bayous.
While other bayou improvement projects in recent years have focused on public art, cafes and festival space, the Greenways initiative is about trails, native grasses and flood-resilient trees.
“This is very simple,” said [Roksan] Okan-Vick, president of the nonprofit Houston Parks Board that is leading the public-private project. “We will commit to keep it as natural as possible and meander a sensitively designed, single line of trail that connects to the neighborhoods whenever possible.”
As opportunities arise to buy grasslands or wooded lots, Okan-Vick said, up to 1,200 acres of new, small nature parks could jut from the trails.
She pointed to a city map with yellow ovals dotted over stretches of six bayous, marking the Greenways projects slated for next year. They include trails along White Oak Bayou between Antoine and Hollister, as well as connecting Brays Bayou trails between Mason Park and the University of Houston.
Another 21 red ovals highlighted areas where land must be acquired or trails built before the 2020 deadline.
The nonprofit has already acquired land along the bayous to complete 20 miles of the 80-mile trail expansion, breaking ground earlier this year on three smaller projects along Brays and White Oak bayous.
That last paragraph refers to the MKT to White Oak trail connection, which will connect two existing bike trails. The Parks Board is about 60% of the way towards raising its goal of $115 million by 2020, which will be matched by funds from the city that were approved in last year’s election. Fifty million of the funds raised by the Parks Board come from the Kinder Foundation, but they with a condition that Council agreed to last week.
The Kinder Foundation is poised to donate $50 million to the Bayou Greenways 2020 initiative to connect Houston parks and double the length of the city’s public trails, but there’s a catch. The City Council first must turn over maintenance of the park lands to a nonprofit because of concerns that the city will not adequately maintain the newly developed properties.
The council is expected to approve the agreement partnering the city with the nonprofit Houston Parks Board, which would manage the maintenance of bayou trails with public funds.
The move is, in part, intended to dispel concerns from private donors who worry whether the city will have enough revenue and political support for the proper upkeep of the signature trail system once it is completed.
Supporters of the greenways project say the agreement before the council will provide assurance to taxpayers and donors that future city leaders cannot undercut their vision by simply moving or slashing city maintenance funds.
“Parks departments have tended to bear the brunt of tough times,” said Andy Icken, Houston’s chief development officer. “This creates a dedicated fund that is more resilient.”
The legal agreement is structured differently from the Buffalo Bayou or Discovery Green projects, but the practical effects are similar.
Under the proposed arrangement, the city agrees to pay the park board up to $10 million a year for maintenance. Although the nonprofit likely will hire private companies and Harris County Flood Control to do some work, the city parks department would be the preferred contractor for the bulk of it, essentially bringing much of the funding back to city coffers.
Additionally, the agreement includes an annual 20 percent contingency fund the board can use for capital improvement projects, such as installing new lights or replacing aging trails, or for disaster recovery after flooding or hurricanes. The board would be required to present an annual report to the City Council on its plans and return any contingency money not spent within the year, Icken said.
If everything goes to plan, the city eventually will make money off the deal. An in-house analysis found that by 2020, when the trails are projected to be complete, the city would be collecting $20 million to $30 million more in property tax revenue than it is today because the improved bayous are expected to raise nearby property values faster.
Council did approve the agreement, so here we are. I’m excited about what this will mean for the city. Houston’s national reputation has improved considerably in recent years, but we’re still considered a flat and visually unappealing place, usually compared unfavorably to cities with hills and more varied terrain like Austin and San Antonio. I figure a project like this can go a long way towards dispelling the idea that there’s not much to look at in Houston beyond the skylines. Swamplot and Houston Politics have more.