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Buffalo Bayou

Cleaning up Buffalo Bayou

This is a big job, and it’s going to take a long time.

Three months after flood torrents from Hurricane Harvey submerged Buffalo Bayou Park under almost 39 feet of water, scars left by the storm are still evident.

Mounds of sand still sit waist-high in some parts of the 160-acre park, branches and stripped trees still hang from the underside of bridges spanning the bayou and waterlogged plant matter still chokes tributaries that feed into Houston’s central waterway.

“The silt levels that resulted from Harvey were beyond anything that we have ever seen with any flooding event,” Buffalo Bayou Partnership president Anne Olson said.

The complete recovery effort, estimated to take another four to six months, involves clearing the over 70,000 cubic yards of sediments the bayou deposited along its banks as floodwaters made their way to Galveston Bay.

“Initially, the sand was higher than my head,” the Buffalo Bayou Partnership’s volunteer coordinator Leticia Sierras said. “The trails here were all buried.”

Here’s an update from the Buffalo Bayou Partnership detailing the work they’ve been doing to clean things up. The bayou is both functional and one of the city’s best features, so getting it fixed up, and giving some thought as to how to mitigate against this kind of damage in the future, is a priority.

Those damn dams

In case you didn’t have enough to worry about.

Here’s the deal with what could be a terrible threat to Houston: most of the time, it isn’t. In fact, it’s a 26,000 acre recreational greenspace on Houston’s west side. It lies on both sides of the Katy Freeway at Highway 6.

On one side is the Addicks Reservoir. On the other is the Barker Reservoir. Both have dams, but most of the time there is very little water to be held back by either. So the acreage is used for parks and has miles of paved bike trails.


Even a moderate rainstorm last month created a pool of water but only right up behind the Barker Reservoir dam. That’s where we met Richard Long who for 35 years has worked at the dam for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

He took us to the top of the dam gates, unlocked the control panel, and flipped a switch.

“This is the gate operating right here,” Long said as an electric motor hoisted the gate upwards inch by inch, allowing the pool of water to slowly drain into Buffalo Bayou.

“We want to get rid of the water as fast as we can so the reservoirs are available for the next rain event,” Long said.

But therein lies the cause for concern: what if that “next rain event” is something really, really big? It’s been on the mind of Jim Blackburn, a Houston environmental attorney.


Richard Long, the dams’ manager, offers this scenario: “Because of our flat terrain here, we don’t have a valley that the flood would go down. It’ll spread out over a very large area. It won’t be like the horror movies you see where a wall of water is coming down a canyon. It would be very rapidly rising water and cause an extremely large amount of damage and possibly a loss of life.”

The Army Corps estimates that a dam failure could cause flooding from Buffalo Bayou and Downtown all the way over to Brays Bayou and the Medical Center. For years, the Army Corp has been monitoring “seepage” of water underneath the dam gates. Those leaks led to the Corps designating the Addicks and Barker dams “extremely high risk” and among the six most critically in need of repair in the nation.

Isn’t that nice to know? I knew you’d think so. I don’t have anything useful to say here, so I’m just going to embed a Led Zeppelin video:

Let’s hope it never comes to that, shall we? Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go buy some sandbags.

The draft bike plan is out

Here it is, in all its glory. I encourage you to look at the draft plan and play with the interactive map. Then, when you start to feel overwhelmed and wish someone would explain it all to you, go read Raj Mankad’s story in Offcite, which does exactly that.

The last time Houston made a bike plan was 1993. Many of the streets declared official bike routes then are among the least safe places to bicycle. Take Washington Avenue. Every few hundred feet, a yellow sign with an image of a bicycle declares “Share the Road.” The street, however, has no dedicated bicycle path — not even a narrow one. Cars race down the 12-foot-wide lanes feebly painted with ineffectual “sharrows” that have faded from the friction of tires. Only “strong and fearless” cyclists, who represent less than one percent of the total population, attempt such routes.

The signage on Washington is visual clutter, or worse. It sends the wrong message to potential cyclists, according to Geoff Carleton of Traffic Engineers. If the city designates a route for bicycling, he says, it should be comfortable enough for “enthused and confident” riders, not just the spandex-clad racers in pelotons. Ultimately, says Carleton, a city’s bike facilities fail unless they can reassure the largest segment, as much as 65 percent of the total population, of potential cyclists: those who self-identify as “interested but concerned.” (The other group is the “no-way no-hows.”)

The Houston Bike Plan, a new draft released by the City of Houston, details just such a future. Made public and presented to the Planning Commission, the plan was crafted by Traffic Engineers, Morris Architects, and Asakura Robinson, a team comprising most of the designers behind METRO’s New Bus Network, a dramatic reimagining and restructuring that’s receiving national attention for its success. A grant to BikeHouston from the Houston Endowment provided part of the $400,000 budget for the new plan with additional funds coming from the City, Houston-Galveston Area Council, and the Houston Parks Board.

The process involved extensive community outreach across class, race, gender, and ethnicity, as well as a study of all existing plans made by the city, management districts, parks, livable center studies, and neighborhood groups. The resulting draft is more a fresh start than an elaboration of the 1993 precedent.

The plan begins with an assessment of where we are today and makes distinctions between high- and low-comfort bike lanes. Only the high-comfort routes are kept in the plan moving forward.

As the plan’s introduction states, Houston has “made great strides in improving people’s ability to bike to more destinations.” The plan also notes changes in attitude and ridership levels, calls out “Sunday Streets … a great example of encouraging more people to get out and be active on Houston streets.” The most substantial improvement comes by way of Bayou Greenways 2020, the 150 miles of separated trails and linear parks along the bayous. (See our coverage of the 2012 bond measure funding this project, the progress of its construction, and the transformative impact it could have on our region.)

Approximately 1.3 million people — six out of 10 Houstonians — will live within 1.5 miles of these bayou trails when they are completed, but traversing those 1.5 miles can be a major challenge. When you map out this and other projects in the works, you see islands of bicycle-friendly territory and fragments of high-comfort bicycling facilities. Because the bayous run east-west, a lack of north-south routes could leave cyclists alone to contend with dangerous traffic and car-oriented infrastructure.

“If we do nothing beyond what is already in progress, we will have 300 miles of bikeways,” says Carleton, “but it won’t be a network.” Thus, the draft plan focuses on links that would build that network.

Ultimately, the vision is for Houston to become by 2026 a Gold Level Bicycle Friendly City according to the standards of the League of American Bicyclists. Currently, the city is Bronze Level.

Here, the plan is broken down into three phases: 1) Short-Term Opportunities, which could solve problems quickly and relatively inexpensively; 2) Key Connections, which are high-impact improvements that would require more investment; 3) Long-Term Houston Bikeway Visions, which are true transformations of infrastructure that would require substantial investments of money, time, and labor. Below, we look at each stage as a whole and at few routes in particular as examples.

Go read the fuller explanation of what those things mean, then look at the map to see where they fit in. A lot of the short-term opportunities include finishing the planned trails along the bayous and taking advantage of streets that have more capacity than traffic to turn a lane into a dedicated bike line like what we have on Lamar Street downtown.

Here’s a snip from the map that I took, which focuses on the parts of this plan that most interest me. Green lines are off street, blue lines are streets with dedicated bike lanes, and fuscia represents streets where bikes and cars can coexist in reasonable fashion. The thicker lines are what exists now, and the thinner lines are what’s in the plan. I’ve filtered out the long-term visions, so what you see are the short term and key connection opportunities:


A few points of interest:

– Note the continuation of the MKT Trail due west at TC Jester (it currently continues along the bayou), following the existing railroad tracks, then turns south through Memorial Park and on down, via the existing CenterPoint right of way. I think all of that is included in that 2012 bond referendum, but don’t hold me to that. Note also the connection from Buffalo Bayou Park to Memorial Park, which just makes all kinds of sense.

– The blue line that runs north-south is at the top the existing bike lane on Heights Blvd, which then continues on to Waugh, serving as a connection to the Buffalo Bayou trail. I’ve noted before how while I’d like to be able to bike that way, it’s just too hairy once you get south of Washington Avenue on Heights. As Raj notes in his story, this would involve some road construction to make it happen, but boy will that be worth it.

– Other blue east-west bike lane additions include (from the bottom up) Alabama, West Dallas/Inwood (connecting to an existing on-street path), Winter Street, White Oak/Quitman (a convenient route to the North Line light rail), and 11th Street/Pecore. I can testify that there is already a bike lane drawn on Pecore east of Michaux, but it needs some maintenance. 11th Street west of Studemont can have some heavy car traffic – people regularly complain how hard it is to cross 11th at the Herkimer bike trail – so I’ll be very interested to see how the plan aims to deal with that.

– Downtown is in the lower right corner of the picture, with Polk and Leeland streets targeted for connecting downtown to EaDo, and Austin and Caroline streets for downtown to midtown. These will no doubt be like the existing Lamar Street bike lane, where the main investment will be in paint and those big raised bumps.

Those are the things that caught my eye. Again, I encourage you to look it all over. The short term and key connection opportunities are fairly low cost all together, with some of the funds likely coming from the 2012 bond and the rest from ReBuild Houston. From Chapter 6 of the plan, on Implementation:

While a significant number of projects have dedicated funding identified for implementation over the next five years, including projects in the City’s CIP and the Bayou Greenways 2020 projects, the City of Houston budget projections indicate that there will be challenges in identifying additional resources, either in personnel, capital, or operations and maintenance to advance many additional components of the plan forward in the near term. Opportunities to leverage existing resources to meet the goals of the plan are important. Additional resources will likely need to be identified to implement many of the recommendations in the HBP in addition.

The Mayor’s press release identifies some of the funding sources being used now for this. Take a look, see what you think, and give them feedback. The draft plan exists because of copious public input, and that input is still needed to take this to completion.

Connecting trails

Always good to see.


The Houston Parks and Recreation Department and Houston Parks Board recently celebrated the completion of the White Oak Bayou Path, the first in a series of projects creating a more connected system of hike-and-bike trails in the city.

Mayor Annise Parker and District A council member Brenda Stardig joined the organizations for a ribbon cutting ceremony on Thursday, July 9.

Joe Turner, director of the city’s parks and recreation department, said that funding for this project was made possible through a $15 million federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant for regional bike and pedestrian trails.

The grant will fund six projects.

The White Oak Bayou Path covers a stretch from Alabonson Road to Antoine Drive where pedestrian traffic had been previously blocked.

“We’re trying to close up gaps in different pieces of our trail system,” Turner said. “It’s an eighth of a mile, but it was a crucial piece with a bridge.”

These gaps, where the paths don’t meet, caused users to stop and turn around. Closing the gaps they connects paths to make thoroughfares.

The other projects include the White Oak Bayou Path between 11th Street and Stude Park, as well as a connection to residential neighborhoods from the path and to Buffalo Bayou Path, which will also include a .3 mile gap closure between Smith and Travis.

East downtown will gain connections between transit, residential and commercial spaces, totaling 8.6 miles of gap closures.

Brays Bayou Path will also benefit from a 1.6 mile gap-closure project and a .6 mile alternative transit path.

Turner said that once all of the projects are completed, the city will have an alternative transportation system with connected off-road hike-and-bike trails.


Roksan Okan-Vick, executive director of the nonprofit Houston Parks Board, said this segment is an important piece of the Bayou Greenways 2020 project, which will create a continuous system of parks and 150 miles of hike-and-bike trails along Houston’s major waterways.

“We have a fairly large and ambitious project underway,” she said.

Okan-Vick said the Houston Parks Board was successful in securing a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant.

“We did the legwork, and we were lucky enough to be approved for the grant,” she said.

Okan-Vick said that there are three gaps on White Oak Bayou that needed to be addressed.

“This is the first one, and if you go further downstream, there is another we are working on,” she said.

When all trail sections are completed, it will be possible to travel the path along White Oak Bayou from far northwest Houston to Buffalo Bayou and downtown Houston, Turner said. “It gives us an alternative to our current transportation system,” he said. “And the hike-and-bike network allows us to connect pieces we’ve never connected before in our city. Lots of trails have been built over time, but they weren’t connected.”

I’m a big fan of this project, which covers a lot of territory and will greatly add off-road capacity for walkers and bicyclists. Longer term, other parts of this project will help make some dense infill development better for residents and neighbors. It will be an enduring legacy of Mayor Parker’s administration. Good work, y’all.

What kind of Memorial Park do you want?

Council is set to vote on the Memorial Park Conservancy plan, whether you like it or not.

Joe Turner does not want more drawings gathering dust on a shelf.

Houston’s parks and recreation director inherited more than a few unrealized master plans when he was hired 10 years ago. Now he’s shepherding the most complex one yet, a detailed plan to restore, improve and maintain Memorial Park, the largest and most heavily used green space in the city.

Thomas Woltz describes his blueprint as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help save a green space three times bigger than New York’s Central Park. It doesn’t lack for ambition, restoring the ecosystem, shifting several ballfields to the park’s northeast corner, increasing parking spaces by 30 percent and creating two dramatic land bridges spanning Memorial Drive that reconnects the park’s major sections.

“We feel like we’ve enlarged the park without any land acquisition,” said Woltz, a partner in one of the nation’s premier landscape architecture firms, Nelson Byrd Woltz.

But it’s an election year, and vested interests around the park are taking aim at new ideas they don’t like. Tuesday is the last day for public comment on the plan.

Then, on Wednesday Mayor Annise Parker and City Council will be asked to vote on the plan, 18 months after they unanimously approved its creation. The plan was created through a partnership of Turner’s department, the Memorial Park Conservancy and the Uptown Houston tax increment reinvestment zone, which committed $3.2 million in financing for the plan.


In addition to the land bridges, the plan’s most ambitious ideas involve infrastructure, including fire suppression and irrigation systems, stormwater management and a 30 percent increase in parking spaces. Those projects would happen first. They fall within the realm of the TIRZ, which by law can support infrastructure only with the tax money it collects.

In interviews with the Houston Chronicle, Woltz and Sarah Newbery, Uptown’s park project manager, have said the tab might be $300 million, but last week they were loath to use any figures.

Newbery said the plan simply tries to define goals for what the park should become over time, if and when funding become available to build the things it proposes. If council approves the plan, the team soon will address where and how to begin, calculate costs and put every item through “a measured and thoughtful public process,” she said.

See here and here for some background on the plan; see here, here, and here for background on the TITZ part. The plan has its share of controversy, from the land bridge to the parking plan to the bayou erosion remediation. This Hair Balls post about yesterday’s Council public session covers a lot of the concerns. I’m generally favorable, though I share a lot of the concerns about the bayou. Be that as it may – you know what’s coming, right? – there’s nothing in this story to indicate what any of the Mayoral candidates think about this. Memorial Park is a crown jewel, and this is a huge undertaking that will happen on the next Mayor’s watch. Wouldn’t it be nice to know if they approve or disapprove, and what their concerns are?

Bayou battle

Another one of our local disputes that has been picked up by national interests.

A Harris County Flood Control District proposal, submitted to the Army Corps of Engineers in April, would reconfigure and stabilize about a third of the semi-natural bayou left inside Loop 610. And it would do so using an approach called Natural Channel Design that, though in wide use across the country, is denounced in many scientific circles.

One of the method’s foremost critics, G. Mathias Kondolf, a professor of environmental planning at the University of California at Berkeley, was with the group on the bayou.

“This is such a remarkable place right in the heart of the city,” he said, standing on the bank. “Here you could let the river be a river. And so why not just leave it alone?”

Natural Channel Design, which the Harris County Flood Control District has used since 2006, was created and popularized by Colorado-based hydrology consultant Dave Rosgen. Rosgen has little in the way of formal scientific training, but he recognized a demand for stream-restoration methods long before academics moved to meet it. Rosgen’s method, taught in short courses rather than Ph.D. programs, uses tree trunks and other natural materials to stop streams from eroding or changing course.

“Rosgen claims that channels designed using his approach are both stable and natural, a deeply appealing combination,” Rebecca Lave, an Indiana University associate professor of geography, writes in her 2012 book “Fields and Streams.” “His NCD approach has been adopted and implemented by local, state and federal agencies throughout the United States despite opposition so strenuous and long-lasting that the controversy has come to be known as the Rosgen Wars.”


The bayou’s surrounding urban environment, however, has sometimes made the channel’s dynamism difficult to accommodate.

As flood-control district director Mike Talbott tells it, Buffalo Bayou is “coming unraveled.” The bayou has eroded and shifted course as Houston has boomed and development increased, and the proposed project would demonstrate a way to stabilize it.

Notably, the last semi-natural stretch of Buffalo Bayou inside Loop 610 runs between Memorial Park and some of the city’s most visible and most expensive real estate, creating a dividing line between public land and private property.

The flood control district and conservationists agree that this marriage of public and private space has not been a happy one.

Some of the landowners whose properties border the bayou have responded to the bayou’s natural erosion with ecologically and hydrologically problematic solutions – things like removing vegetation and replacing it with vast concrete walls. The flood-control district can’t control what those landowners do.

But by addressing an area slightly downstream from these expansive backyards and their bad solutions, the district intends to showcase a better way, Talbott said, one that would stabilize the bayou and reduce erosion without being so ecologically destructive.

“The people aren’t going to let it do what it wants to do,” Talbott said of the property owners along Buffalo Bayou. “That’s why the idea of intervention sounds like the right thing.”

The Memorial Park Demonstration Project, which would cost an estimated $6 million, has both money and broad institutional support, with funding lined up from the flood-control district, the city of Houston and the River Oaks Country Club. The Memorial Park Conservancy and the Bayou Preservation Association are also backing it.

But the project is not a done deal. Even if the Army Corps of Engineers approves the flood-control district’s proposal – there is no specific deadline for them to do so – it will have to go through another public hearing process, as required by the Texas Parks and Wildlife code.

See here for the background, and here for the case against the Rosgen approach, as articulated by Save Buffalo Bayou. Prof. Kondolf was here in November to inspect this part of the bayou and give a report on it; you can read a brief summary of that here and see a video of his presentation here. Save Buffalo Bayou is a good resource if you want to know more about this part of the bayou that most of us never get to see. It seems likely to me that the Memorial Park Demonstration Project will go forward as planned, given the support for it, but we should at least understand what the alternative is.

A bike lane to connect to bike trails

Makes sense.

Houston may get its first protected on-street bike route as early as October, as city officials prepare to convert a lane of Lamar Street downtown into a two-way cycling path connecting the popular Buffalo Bayou trails west of downtown to Discovery Green and points east.

The nearly three-quarter-mile connector, from the east end of Sam Houston Park to the edge of Discovery Green, will be painted green and separated from the remaining three lanes of traffic by a two-foot barrier lined with striped plastic humps known as “armadillos” or “zebras,” said Laura Spanjian, the city’s sustainability director.

Signals will be added at intersections to direct cyclists headed east on one-way westbound Lamar. Officials hope to begin work in September and open the lane in October.

Michael Payne, executive director of Bike Houston, said the 11-block dedicated lane will be a crucial link to safely get cyclists from the Buffalo Bayou trails to the well-used Columbia Tap Trail east of downtown that runs past Texas Southern University. A link from that trailhead to the George R. Brown Convention Center is under construction.

“The key here is that physical separation, which makes cyclists feel more comfortable, that their space is defined,” Payne said. “When you’re on a bike route you’re right out there with the traffic. The whole objective here for Houston is to develop infrastructure that makes people feel comfortable, safe and encourages them to get out of their houses and out of their cars and use their bicycles both for recreation and for transportation.”


Jeff Weatherford, who directs traffic operations for the city’s Department of Public Works and Engineering, said Lamar was chosen in part because the lane being converted is devoted to parking except during rush hours.

The other available streets that had a parking lane to give were Walker, McKinney and Dallas, but Weatherford said Walker and McKinney see higher speeds and more traffic movement because they become Interstate 45 on-ramps. And along Dallas, downtown boosters plan retail-oriented improvements. Lamar is the default choice, he said.

Average traffic counts show Lamar also carries fewer cars daily than the other three streets considered. At its busiest, between 4 and 5 p.m., Lamar averages 1,240 vehicles between Allen Parkway and Travis. East of Travis, the counts drop sharply; the blocks of Lamar closest to the convention center, at their busiest, see fewer than 200 cars per hour.

There are a few complainers, of course, but there always will be for something like this. You can see with your own eyes that Lamar is less trafficked than Walker or McKinney, and the connections to I-45 are definitely a key part of that. What makes bike trails effective as transportation, not just as leisure or exercise, is connectivity. The trails themselves are great because they’re safe, efficient ways to travel by bike. Connecting the trails in this fashion makes them that much more effective and gives that many more people reasons to use them. Is it going to magically un-congest our streets of vehicular traffic? No, of course not. Nothing will do that short of a massive paradigm change. But it will give a larger number of people the option of not being part of that congestion, for little to no cost. What more do you want? Houston Tomorrow has more.

On the bayou and erosion

A portion of the work being done on Buffalo Bayou, known as the Memorial Park Demonstration Project, is drawing opposition for being too big a change to the natural state of the bayou.

Borne of a 2010 workshop hosted by the Bayou Preservation Association, the project calls for reshaping the banks of the bayou that wind past the [River Oaks Country Club], the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, a residential neighborhood and the southernmost border of the 1,503-acre park.

The plan calls for the segment of Buffalo Bayou – stressed, both sides agree, by the increased runoff that has come with urban development – to be widened, its course adjusted in some places and its crumbling banks shaped into stable slopes. A mass of vegetation would be stripped away from its banks and trees removed. Replanting would occur toward the end of the project, the cost of which Harris County, the city of Houston and the country club have agreed to share.

According to the Harris County Flood Control District, which will oversee the project, the plan would “create a self-sustaining bayou that would slow the erosion process” and potentially serve as a model for future projects – if it works. The project would be the first along the bayou to employ “natural channel design techniques,” as opposed to traditional concrete lining, something Mayor Annise Parker and County Judge Ed Emmett describe as a sign of progress. It has been dubbed a “demonstration” project because officials say it would showcase the benefits of the methodology.

Groups such as the Sierra Club and the Houston Audubon Society, however, say the plan would destroy all wildlife habitat along that stretch of the bayou, and that the science behind it has not been proven to reduce erosion.

“If we strip off 80 percent of the vegetation, if we remove the trees that shade the water, we will actually ruin a mile and a quarter of the main channel of Buffalo Bayou,” said Evelyn Merz, conservation chair of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.

The group is proposing an alternative that involves promoting the existing habitat by planting native vegetation. It would impact the area less “because it will be aimed at the areas that most need support,” Merz said.

Save Buffalo Bayou is leading the activism against this. Two of its members had an op-ed in the Chron recently, reprinted here, that lays out their case. I haven’t followed this closely, but the way they illustrate what the plan is sure doesn’t make it look appetizing. If you want to offer your feedback, you have until June 30, when the public comment period closes. Here are their recommendations for what to say. CultureMap has more.

The cars in the bayous

Boy, does this sound like a great opening to a crime novel.

Houston’s bayous, dotted by marshy banks and filled with bass and catfish, weave through the city, providing an appealing landscape for joggers and cyclists. But beneath the murky, brown waters is something not as pleasant: a makeshift dumping ground of cars, trucks and vans.

Tim Miller, director of Texas Equusearch, said his volunteer crews have evidence that 127 vehicles are submerged in the bayous. Miller said there are potential environmental and safety hazards of having cars corroding the city’s waterways.

“Houston is known as the Bayou City. I know millions of dollars are spent on the banks of the bayous to make it beautiful,” said Miller, who founded the nonprofit search and rescue organization in 2000. “But we’ve got a big problem with what’s underneath the water.”

Texas Equusearch crews found the vehicles while assisting the Houston Police Department with a search for 82-year-old Lillian High in October 2011. Her body was found inside a rented Dodge Avenger that had plunged into the pond a few miles from her Houston home.

During that search Miller said the organization’s sonar equipment discovered vehicles in Sims, Braes and Buffalo bayous.

In recent months, Miller said many bodies have been discovered in vehicles in Texas and around the country, compelling him to go public with the information. He cited two cases from April, one in which police in South Dakota found the bodies of two teens who disappeared 42 years ago. Later that month, police found skeletal remains inside a truck recovered from a North Texas lake of a woman missing for 35 years.

“Families would call me whose loved ones were still missing, and they’d see these kinds of stories and ask me if there is any chance that their (family members) could be under there, since their loved ones hadn’t been found,” he said. “It was just like, you know what, we’ve got to do something, we just have to.”

HPD says the know all about the cars and they dispute the claim that there could be bodies in one or more of them. I have no opinion about that, but I do think from an environmental point of view that we ought to do what we can to get these cars out of there. They can’t be doing any good down there. Let’s figure out how much it might cost, then see if we can come up with an action plan. Swamplot has more.

City drops bid for downtown post office

So much for that.

Photo by Houston In Pics

The city of Houston has withdrawn from bidding on the downtown post office, Mayor Annise Parker wrote in a letter to City Council members Tuesday.

City officials said they wanted to keep their options open in bidding on the site, saying it could have a number of uses, chief among them as a location for the city’s planned police and courts complex. Parker’s letter also notes the site could give commuter rail an entry point to downtown.

Some developers eager to scoop up the high-profile 16-acre property at Bagby and Franklin just east of Interstate 45 had expressed their displeasure at the city’s interest in the property to council members in recent weeks.

“When we entered the bidding we did not think that the competition with private interests and the concern about us being in that fight would be as strong as they are and, on second thought, we decided it’s probably best if we do pull out,” Parker spokeswoman Janice Evans said Tuesday.


Central Houston chairman Ric Campo said the site is crucial to improving the theater district and the northwest section of downtown. The city’s interest, he said, generated ample chatter among those active in the central business district.

“It wasn’t a quiet conversation,” Campo said. “There were voices on both sides. Having the city step aside, there must have been louder voices on the private side. It gets to be a political issue whenever you get something like that.” Should the city be involved or not be involved?”

See here and here for the background. While I’m sure it will be better in the long run for the old post office to become some kind of mixed-use development – this Chron editorial made the point that something other than a government building would be a lot more amenable to the overall plan for Buffalo Bayou – I still don’t quite get the fuss about this. If the process was fair and the city was submitting a fair bid, what’s wrong with that? Be that as it may, the city will look elsewhere for its police and courts complex. That’s fine by me. Houston Public Media has more.

Finally doing that front door facelift

Better late than never.

Renovations started this week on the historic Sunset Coffee Building at Allen’s Landing on the north end of downtown.

The more than 100-year-old structure, now behind a fence as construction begins, is getting a $5.3 million facelift from Houston First Corp. and Buffalo Bayou Partnership. They hope the new design will reconnect the bayou with downtown Houston.

The building sits on a spot often referred to as “Houston’s Plymouth Rock,” according to a joint announcement Friday from the Partnership and Houston First. Brothers August Chapman Allen and John Kirby Allen established Houston there in 1836.


The project should be completed in about one year. At that time the building will have an outdoor plaza with refreshment and rental facilities for runners, canoeists, kayakers and bikers. The first level will be office space for the partnership and the second level and a rooftop terrace will be used as event space.

A walkway will connected the building to Commerce Street. Ultimately, the building will connect to Buffalo Bayou’s trail system that stretches to Shepherd Drive.

We first heard about this almost a year ago. At the time, the plan was for work to begin in April, 2013. I don’t know what caused the delay – this story doesn’t indicate – but at least it’s getting started now. I can’t wait to see what it looks like when it’s finally done.

Beautifying Buffalo Bayou

I’m really looking forward to seeing how this winds up.

The nonprofit Buffalo Bayou Partnership is overseeing $58 million in ecological restoration and enhancement to upgrade the 2.3-mile stretch between Shepherd and Sabine into a green gem with a slew of amenities and surprisingly diverse landscapes where native plants will star.

The Kinder Foundation’s $30 million catalyst gift launched the ambitious project in the 160 acre-park. The Wortham Foundation’s $5 million moved the partnership closer to its $23 million fundraising goal, and Harris County Flood Control District is contributing $5 million, partnership president Anne Olson said. One of the city’s tax zones will contribute $2 million per year for the park’s maintenance and operations when it’s completed in 2015.

The private-public effort will add trails, pedestrian bridges, public art, a nature playground, two ponds for dogs, quiet areas and recreational spaces and parking.

But one of the project’s key goals is restoring the diversity of landscapes historically found along the bayou.

“We’re trying to keep the park natural and green but take it to a more refined level by removing non-natives and invasives,” Olson said.

The flood control district has been clearing unwanted plants, dredging silt and sculpting bayou banks to improve water flow, decrease murkiness and ease erosion.

I’ve written about this project before, and the more I hear about it the more I can’t wait to see the finished product. If you’ve driven down Allen Parkway lately or were there for the Art Car Parade, you’ve seen some of the progress that they’ve been making. Where things go after the work is done is even more interesting to contemplate. There’s already a B-Cycle kiosk the Sabine end of the bayou; adding another at the Montrose/Studemont entry point, and another at the nearby Regent Square Alamo Drafthouse would be good ideas. Connecting the Bayou at the west end to Memorial Park would also be awesome. Lots to be excited about here.

On a fascinating little tangent, a couple of weeks ago a rare alligator snapping turtle, which had been thought to be extinct in Harris County, was found in the Bayou. It’s since been nursed back to health (it had fish hooks in its mouth) and released in the wild where it belongs. This doesn’t have anything to do with the story, I just thought it was cool.

That big East End KBR site has been sold

There’s one less huge tract of land on the market these days.

A Buffalo Bayou-front parcel spanning 136 acres just east of downtown has found a buyer.

The mostly vacant tract is under contract and expected to close by the end of the year, said Davis Adams of HFF, the commercial real estate firm listing the property. He would not identify the buyer.

KBR is the longtime owner of the land at 4100 Clinton, east of Jensen Drive. The site is the former headquarters of the global engineering and construction firm. KBR has been moving workers away from the site for years and put the property on the market over the summer.

The sale has been long anticipated by real estate developers, bayou enthusiasts and residents of the East End.

Many hope to see the land redeveloped with a combination of uses, including high-density residential, retail and parks that take advantage of the nearly mile-long stretch of Buffalo Bayou frontage.

See here for the background. Some people would like for this land to be used for a university. I don’t really expect that to happen, but we’ll find out soon enough.

An honor for Buffalo Bayou


Buffalo Bayou’s transformation from a murky, yuck-inducing stream to a recreation destination earned Houston’s iconic natural resource a top honor from a national organization Wednesday.

The American Planning Association named Buffalo Bayou one of the nation’s 10 “great public spaces,” recognizing decades of efforts to turn the waterway into a vital urban amenity.

“A lot of people from other parts of the country don’t recognize how Houston is a city of people who love to be outdoors and it is a city in which you can be outdoors almost all year ’round,” Mayor Annise Parker said at a news conference outside City Hall, overlooking the weekly farmers market.

“Sometimes you might sweat a little bit, but it is an outdoor city and we are drawn to vibrant, interesting outdoor places,” Parker said.

The APA, the nation’s primary urban planning organization, annually recognizes great neighborhoods, streets and public spaces in cities around the country. It named Montrose one of the nation’s 10 great neighborhoods in 2009.

This year’s award singled out a nine-mile stretch of Buffalo Bayou between Shepherd Drive and Turning Basin Overlook Park, highlighting the “distinctive design, amenities and public art; high level of public and private support; and ecological restoration and protection efforts.”

You can see the APA’s full list of Great Public Spaces here, and their other Great Places here. It’s a nice bit of recognition to get, and with the parks bond issue on the ballot it’s nicely timed as well. See the Mayor’s press release for more.

UPDATE: Apparently, Mayor Parker has dissed the Riverwalk in talking up Buffalo Bayou. Oops!

What would you do with 136 acres near downtown?

Something urban, mixed-use, and transit-oriented, one hopes.

A rare opportunity lies in 136 acres just east of downtown Houston.

The Buffalo Bayou-front parcel, a longtime industrial and office complex, went on the market earlier this summer – a move bayou enthusiasts, East End residents and real estate developers had been anticipating for years.

Some of them say the expansive property – even larger than the former AstroWorld site off the South Loop – offers a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to create a multiuse development incorporating the cultural influences of downtown, the East End and other surrounding historic neighborhoods.

Architect and urban planner Peter Brown envisions a “town center” where a mix of housing types, offices, shops and cultural attractions encircle a central green space.

Those most familiar with the area cite a lengthy wish list, from groceries to book stores to new recreational facilities. City Councilman James Rodriguez, who represents that part of town, would like to see “shops, rooftops and various other amenities for our East End community.”

And he is hardly alone in taking note of the nearly mile-long stretch of bayou frontage. That combination of proximity to water, combined with skyline views, ups the ante.

“People are drawn to cities that offer urban vitality in a natural setting – New York and its harbor, Chicago and its lakefront, Denver and its mountains, Austin and Lady Bird Lake,” said Guy Hagstette, project manager of Buffalo Bayou Park and ex-director of Discovery Green.

I can’t tell exactly where this is, as no street information is given in the story, but give the description, the photo above, and the suggestion made later in the article by Christof Spieler of a streetcar connection to the EaDo/Stadium light rail station, I can sort of guess; I’d say it’s more or less north of that station, looking at the East Line rail map. It’s clear that a development like this, when it happens, will have a transformative effect on the area. Whether that’s good or bad will depend entirely on what ultimately gets built. The Chron solicited a lot of good feedback from a variety of people – former CM Peter Brown had so much to say they wrote a separate article to capture it all – but in the end I don’t know how much effect anything but what the people who buy the land want to do with it will have. We better hope they get it right.

Couple things to add. One, don’t underestimate the value of abutting the Buffalo Bayou. It’s a great natural resource, and many of Houston’s best neighborhoods are built around bayous. If my estimate of where this is and my reading of this Houston Bikeways map is correct, there’s already a bike trail along the bayou in place for the future residents, employees, and shoppers of this location. That would be a nice, convenient way to get into downtown without having to pay to park. Similarly, a streetcar connection to the Harrisburg and Southeast light rail lines would be an excellent addition and would make the development much more transit-accessible. A short streetcar line could be put in for a fairly small amount of money – the 3-mile-long line that Fort Worth eventually decided not to install had a price tag of $88 million. A line from this development to the EaDo/Stadium station would be not nearly that long and would probably only require one car. It could be paid for by the city, Metro, and the developer – I can’t think of a better use of a 380 agreement than that.

Finally, something I’ve said before but cannot be said too often is that Houston has a lot of empty spaces and underpopulated areas in it that can and really should be pushed for development as residential or mixed-used properties. Many of them can use existing infrastructure, though improvements will need to be made. Many already have access or proximity to transit, which would allow for denser development. There are a lot of places that can be developed that are close in to downtown or other employment hubs like the Medical Center or Greenspoint. The city has advantages that the increasingly far-flung reaches of unincorporated Harris County do not, and it really needs to prioritize making affordable housing available inside its boundaries for people who would prefer to live closer in, and to make it an attractive alternative to those who might not have thought about it otherwise. Population is power, and if the city isn’t growing it’s going to be losing out. There’s plenty going on for the high-end buyer and that’s good, but it’s a small piece of the market. The KBR site is a great opportunity, but it’s far from the only one. The city needs to find ways to get as many of those other opportunities going as it can.

One more thing about the Buffalo Bayou transformation

You saw Trudi Smith’s guest post about the transformation of Buffalo Bayou, which was recently kicked into high gear. There’s a point that needs to be addressed about the project and the lovely park that’s being built up, and the Chron discussed it in a recent editorial.

How will people get there? And where will they park?

While the Rosemont Bridge and a few over/under passes on the north side help people cross Memorial, Allen Parkway is severely lacking in easy bicycle and pedestrian crossing. Crossing at Waugh or Montrose can feel pretty risky, especially during heavy traffic. And the intersection at Taft has no crosswalk at all, with joggers and bikers playing a life-size game of Frogger across the mini-highway that is Allen Parkway.

As it is now, Allen Parkway makes it difficult for Buffalo Bayou Park to become a neighborhood green space for people in Montrose and the Fourth Ward. Updates to the park will be nice, but of limited value if people cannot get to them.

Buffalo Bayou Partnership chairman Bob Phillips and Andy Icken responded in an op-ed a few days later.

The Buffalo Bayou Park Master Plan outlines very specific ways to create better and safer public access to Buffalo Bayou Park from Shepherd Street to Sabine Street. The proposed solutions that are outlined in the Master Plan will require effective use of city property and collaboration with the city of Houston and developers in the surrounding neighborhoods. Examples include new pedestrian crosswalks to allow safer access into the park and improvements to Allen Parkway to increase parking.

Our goal is to finalize our strategy now so when the construction is complete in 2015, we can welcome people who are walking, biking, using public transportation or driving.

Most of the items they specify in their piece have to do with parking, which highlights the irony of building a gorgeous bike trail that people have to access by car. I live a bit more than a mile and a half from the entry to the trail at Studemont/Montrose, but there’s no good way for me to get there by bike. Biking on Studemont from where it underpasses I-10 borders on suicidal. The only other roads to get you there coming from the north are Heights/Waugh and Durham/Shepherd. The latter is as bad as Studemont, the former is okay except for the stretch where it passes over Memorial and Allen Parkway. I might brave it myself some day, but I’d never want to have my kids ride along with me, it’s too dangerous. It’s a shame that it has to be this way, especially since the trail provides a useful entryway into downtown and thus can serve as a path for bike commuters. I wish I could say I had a good suggestion to deal with this, but I don’t. This is the way things are in Houston.

Trudi Smith: What’s going on with Buffalo Bayou

The following is from a series of guest posts that I have been presenting over the past few weeks.

Transformation of Buffalo Bayou Park, one of Houston’s most iconic green spaces, is well underway. With an historic $30 million catalyst gift from the Kinder Foundation, a strong public-private partnership has been created to include Buffalo Bayou Partnership (BBP), City of Houston led by the Houston Parks & Recreation Department and Harris County Flood Control District. BBP has been charged with leading the enhancements of the 160-acre, 2.3-mile bayou stretch from Shepherd Drive to Sabine Street.

Likened to Houston’s own Central Park, the ambitious $55 million project will:

  • Restore the bayou to a more natural and self-sustaining version of what exists today
  • Reintroduce native park landscape
  • Add amenities to enhance safety and visitor experience

After two years of design and engineering, trail work is being constructed and additional improvements are slated to begin this summer. The entire project is expected to be complete in mid-2015. Here’s the Master Plan.

Buffalo Bayou Park Phase I Begins

Steps to Crosby Outfall along Allen Parkway just west of Sabine Street

Phase I work will be executed in two stages. The first stage includes a new pedestrian bridge at Jackson Hill, a new bridge and trails providing access to the Police Memorial, and a new footbridge, stairs and earthwork at the Crosby Outfall area at the intersection of Sabine Street and Allen Parkway.

The 345-foot Jackson Hill Bridge will be the first bayou spanning bridge to be built, and it will connect via a small plaza to the existing pedestrian bridge which crosses over Memorial Drive. Similar in aesthetic to the Hobby Center Bridge, it will provide a safe and convenient route for cyclists and pedestrians to cross over Buffalo Bayou. A trail connector to the east and a footpath connector to the west will also be added.

Improvements planned at Sabine Street and the Crosby Outfall will complement the existing trail into Eleanor Tinsley Park. The new footbridge will be 53 feet long and stairs will be upgraded to resemble those at the Sabine Promenade.

Phase I construction is expected to be completed by September 2013.

Harris County Flood Control District Begins Work at the Police Memorial

In August, the Harris County Flood Control District will start its channel conveyance restoration project. Work includes restoring the conveyance capacity of the bayou by removing accumulated sediment, repairing erosion and stabilizing bank failures. The District will also conduct selective clearing to remove invasive vegetation and, ultimately, implement a tree planting plan.

The District’s work will begin on the bayou’s north bank near the Police Memorial (north of Memorial Drive) and then proceed in seven phases to Shepherd Drive. This work will continue until late 2014 and is a continuation of the successful Pilot Project the District completed in 2010.

Overall, trail use in this area should not be heavily impacted. However, trails may be temporarily closed due to construction traffic crossing the trails. During these times, the construction contractor will have flagmen on-site directing pedestrian and vehicular traffic. Canoeists and kayakers should note there will be times when the bayou will be closed for safety reasons due to the construction.

South Bank Trail Closure at Taft & Allen Parkway

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and the City of Houston continued work on the 4.6-mile Sandy Reed Memorial Trail on the south side of the bayou at Taft and Allen Parkway, extending eastward to Sabine Street. Trail users: Please note that for safety reasons the trail on the south side of Buffalo Bayou at Montrose (on the west) and Sabine (on the east) will be closed through approximately October 2012. Trail users are asked to stay on the north bank trails or detour from the south across the Rosemont Bridge.

The Water Works Cistern

In early January, the Houston Chronicle highlighted one of Buffalo Bayou Park’s most fascinating features. Below the signature lawn being developed as The Water Works performance area, north of the existing Lee and Joe Jamail Skate Park, sits an unused City of Houston water reservoir. This 100,000-square-foot area has enormous potential. While there is currently no funding to develop the “Cistern,” as it has been dubbed, Houston-based SmartGeoMetrics has volunteered to produce 3D imaging of the cavernous space. Their work will help BBP accurately document the Cistern’s current as-is condition, conceptualize ideas for developing the space, and, with luck, facilitate funding. Imaging is expected to be completed by late summer. SmartGeoMetrics’ imaging will be given to the University of Houston’s Texas Learning and Computation Center (TLC2) who will vet a web-based public ideas process to come up with creative and sustainable potential uses. Stay tuned for details on this public ideas process!

Behind the Scenes: Familiar Faces-SWA Group

Front left to right: Jenny Janis, Jiyoung Nam, Josh Lock, Peng Xu; middle left to right: Clayton Bruner, Tim Peterson, Kevin Shanley (President, SWA Group); back left to right: Jake Salzman, Scott McCready, Michael Robinson; not pictured: Xin Sui, Alaleh Rouhi

Friends of Buffalo Bayou Partnership will recall SWA Group leading the award-winning Sabine Promenade Project. SWA Group is once again collaborating with Buffalo Bayou Partnership on the design of Buffalo Bayou Park improvements. As one of the world’s top landscape architecture and planning firms, SWA has designed countless projects in Houston and around the world. Their work includes revitalization of the landscape architecture of Hermann Park and framework planning for Houston’s Brays Bayou Corridor, among others. The Buffalo Bayou Park team is led by President Kevin Shanley, who has been involved in innovative flood management projects along a majority of Houston bayous. Rounding out the skilled team are Scott McCready, lead designer, and Tim Peterson, project manager.

For additional information on the Buffalo Bayou Park Shepherd to Sabine, click here.

To read more of the July/August 2012 In the Works e-newsletter, click here.

To sign up to receive Buffalo Bayou Partnership’s monthly e-newsletters, click here.

Trudi Smith is the Director of PR and Events for the Buffalo Bayou Partnership. The Buffalo Bayou Partnership is the non-profit organization revitalizing and transforming Buffalo Bayou, Houston’s most significant natural resource.

Buffalo Bayou begins its makeover

This is going to be great.

The jogging and biking trails that wind through Buffalo Bayou Park west of downtown are about to get a bit more circuitous as a $55 million effort to transform the area into an iconic green space for Houston begins in earnest this month.


The Harris County Flood Control District will kick off $5.1 million worth of earthwork along the bayou next month, dredging silt from the channel, fixing erosion problems and pulling or planting vegetation.

“It’s a very popular area. The challenge is leaving the park open for the public to use while we have large construction equipment in there,” said Sandra Musgrove, infrastructure division director for the flood control district. “I just hope people will be patient and tolerate all the construction, because the end result will be a really nice park.”

The district generally will work westward, reaching Shepherd by December 2014. The partnership will follow, extending the landscaping, distinctive blue lighting and waterside jogging trails it built between Bagby and Sabine to Shepherd by spring 2015.

Work to replace the main hike-and-bike trail through the park already has begun, overseen by the Texas Department of Transportation.

See here for full details of the plan, and this Swamplot post from last year for more pictures. Buffalo Bayou Park is already one of this city’s great amenities. The completion of this project will make it that much better.

Transforming Buffalo Bayou


A $55 million upgrade to parkland along Buffalo Bayou is set to add performance venues, improve recreational areas and revitalize downtown-area green space that officials hope will become a magnet and refuge similar to New York’s Central Park.

Houston City Council on Wednesday approved an operating agreement paving the way for construction, including a major restructuring of Buffalo Bayou and restoration of its ecosystems. The Harris County Commissioners Court will take up a similar agreement Tuesday.

The plan’s cost will be covered by $50 million in donations, including $30 million from The Kinder Foundation, with construction expected to run from June 2012 through 2015. The city will contribute $2 million annually to maintain and operate the upgraded park, and the Harris County Flood Control District will pitch in $5 million to assist with changes to the waterway. The Buffalo Bayou Partnership still is raising private funds for the project.

The restructuring effort will focus on a 158-acre, 2.3-mile stretch of the bayou between Shepherd and Sabine, with an emphasis on “resculpting” the bayou channel to restore a more natural meandering path that was scraped away during a 1950s flood control project, said Guy Hagstette, a consultant for the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, which developed the plan.

The city’s press release is here, and you can learn all you want to know about the project at the Buffalo Bayou Partnership webpage. Keep in mind that the San Antonio Riverwalk started out as a flood control project, and transformed over time into a star attraction and a reason for people to visit the city. Buffalo Bayou already has some nice amenities, and what’s being planned now will really make it something. Who knows what it could be in once this is done?

Beautifying the bayous

Very cool.

A local nonprofit hopes its $55 million plan to overhaul 158 acres of parkland along Buffalo Bayou west of downtown will transform the area into an iconic green space for Houston.

The Buffalo Bayou Partnership’s plan calls for extensive upgrades along the bayou between Shepherd and Sabine, intended to improve aesthetics, attract more visitors and reduce the risk of flooding.

The plan will reach City Council this week and Commissioners Court later this month. These expected nods of approval will start talks on final details, to be fleshed out in the coming months.

Construction is expected to start in mid-2012 and take three years.

The effort will be funded almost entirely by private donors, save $5 million from the Harris County Flood Control District. The Kinder Foundation has given $30 million, believed to be the largest gift ever given to a park project in Houston. That leaves the partnership with $20 million to scrape together.

“That area of the bayou is so used,” said Nancy Kinder. “The trails are in such dire shape. That was really what caught our focus — that this could be a world-class park if you did just some basic work.”

You can read more about the plan here. I’m really looking forward to seeing how this all shapes up.

In the meantime, Tuesday was the ceremonial grand opening of the bridge formerly known as Tolerance, now simply called Rosemont. I went by on my way home with my camera, intending to take a few pictures, but the “ceremonial” aspect of the opening meant that the bridge itself was not yet available. I did actually take a few shots, but then I saw that Swamplot had a much better assortment, so I figured I’d save myself some time and just point you there. I’ll try again some time after the bridge becomes open for real.