By Alex Wukman
Image Courtesy of Buffalo Bayou Partnership
How and where Buffalo Bayou’s muddy waters flow have become very expensive questions over the last 10 years. Millions of dollars have already been spent by public and private organizations to determine where the bayou needs to go and the best way to get it there, and the project is only halfway underway. By the time the project is completed, $50 million, almost all of it private donations, will have been spent transforming the Sabine to Shepherd stretch of the bayou into the crown jewel of the city’s park network.
“It’s going to be Houston’s version of Central Park,” said Anne Olson, president of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership. The inherent distrust that some members of the community have toward any form of government has led to, often unfounded, accusations that the Partnership is trying to rule by fiat and ‘corporatize’ one of the city’s last green spaces.
Olson said the perception of closed-door meetings and backroom deals between influential politicians and business members couldn’t be further from the truth. She said that over the last few years, the Partnership, along with the city and the county, held a series of public meetings with community members and stakeholders in order to determine what the public wanted from the park.
“It’s not like we hired a bunch of park designers and said this is how it’s going to be,” Olson said. She also scoffed at the idea that redeveloping Buffalo Bayou Park is, somehow, part of some nefarious plot by the white-business establishment to destroy Allen Parkway Village or to further gentrify what’s left of Freedmen’s Town, which was mostly absorbed into Midtown in the mid-2000s.
“I don’t know where anyone would get the idea that this would have any impact on the Historic Oaks of Allen Parkway Village or the Freedmen’s Town District,” Olson said. She pointed out that most of the park’s restoration is taking place on the north bank, across the bayou from Freedmen’s Town and Allen Parkway Village. As for the concerns about the park being one of Houston’s last remaining green spaces, Olson explained that things aren’t always what they seem.
“People look at the park and see that it’s filled with trees and grass, what most people don’t realize is that most of those plants shouldn’t be there,” Olson said. A study of the park’s vegetation, which the Partnership filed with the Texas Forest Service, found Buffalo Bayou to be overrun with invasive species—primarily White Cedar and Chinese Tallow. Chinese Tallow is such an aggressive invader that it already accounts for 23 percent of the trees in the Houston area and the Texas Department of Agriculture has declared it illegal to sell, distribute or import the tree into Texas.
The study found that, in addition to hemming in native plants, invasive species have poor soil stabilization techniques that accelerate bank erosion. Olson explained that the Partnership plans to combat the invasive species problem by removing 50 percent of the park’s lawn, which is mostly made up of easily-maintained but non-native Bermuda grass, and replacing it with native grasses.
“We’re going to create an 11 acre urban prairie,” Olson said. While replacing one type of grass with another may not sound like a big deal, it is a large contributing factor to Harris County’s plans for the bayou. Mike Talbott, director of the Harris County Flood Control District, explained that the county sees the redevelopment of the park as a chance to undo some of the channelization that the Army Corps of Engineers did in the 1950s and 1960s.
“We want to restore the capacity of Buffalo Bayou on the Shepherd and Sabine reach and restore the bayou’s ability to store water and minimize silt,” Talbott said. He went on to explain that the flood control district plans to restore the bayou by creating bends, eddies, and other places for silt to drop out of the water. The flood control district has pledged $5 million to implement the new water retention techniques.
“We’re using natural techniques and asking ‘what does the bayou want to do and how can we help it,’” Talbott said. “We’re trying to help this system act like a native system.”
He went on to explain that by adding native plants and other forms of low-maintenance landscaping, the bayou will end up as “something that is self-sustaining, from a flood control standpoint.” While the ecological changes and flood control improvements will be beneficial to the bayou as a whole, the most visible projects will be the ones geared to the park’s human users. Olson explained that the Partnership has undertaken a vast infrastructure improvement plan designed to help unify the park.
“In Eleanor Tinsley Park, there will be wider sidewalks that will allow easier access for trucks during large events, and we will be adding some infrastructure for lights and sound equipment,” said Olson. Over the course of the next year, Buffalo Bayou Partnership will be making major improvements, such as improved parking access, to make it easier for Eleanor Tinsley Park to hold large events. Trudi Smith, the Partnership’s public relations and events director, said that the construction process for improvements to Eleanor Tinsley Park have not yet begun, and that any changes to the bayou or any part of the park network will not decrease the space available for events.
Susan Christian, director of the Mayor’s Office of Special Events, explained that while the construction could prove disruptive for any events scheduled this year, the planned improvements “will have a positive effect on future events.”
“We’ll have to suffer through the construction this year, but the rewards that come to us after the construction is over will be far greater,” said Christian. Among the planned improvements to the facilities along Buffalo Bayou is the restoration of Lost Lake, which was removed in the 1970s when its dam was damaged. Once restored, Lost Lake will feature a pavilion and visitor center with paddleboat/canoe and kayak rentals and 3,500 square feet of space for a proposed café. The informal dog park near the intersection of Studemont and Allen Parkway will become an official dog park with a fenced-in animal play area.
One of the most ambitious improvements the Partnership plans to undertake is the addition of a permanent stage, called Water Music Place, near the Lee and Joe Jamail Skatepark. Although the details for the new performance pavilion are still being worked out, the venue will feature concession areas and green space the size of a football field, all built atop a disused reservoir.
The reservoir, affectionately called the 1927 Cistern by City of Houston and Partnership staffers, is considered one of the most cathedral-like spaces in Houston. Houston Chronicle columnist Lisa Gray was allowed to take a trip into the cavern-like space in January 2012 and she described the odd acoustic properties of a giant underground metal sphere with six inches of water in it.
“With a sharp sound—like a hand clap—we could hear the sound waves interfering with each other as they bounced off the walls, pulsing erratically in the 17 long seconds before they finally died away,” wrote Gray. Some members of Houston’s avant-garde music community are already salivating at the thought of playing in a space that Gray describes as being illuminated by dramatic shafts of light straight out of a Caspar Friedrich painting and a sky framed by hatches that resemble a James Turrell installation.
The problem is that the space wasn’t discovered until after all the money for Shepherd-to-Sabine projects had been budgeted. And the prospect of bringing the space up to code—it doesn’t even have a door—is proving to be an expensive one. The existence of the cistern is also proving to be an engineering challenge for the construction of Water Music Place, which was originally intended to be built directly on top of the reservoir. The original plans called for the space to be used as parking or storage.
As Gray points out in her column, the sublime beauty of the space convinced the various stakeholders to do away with the functional ideas for the cistern and begin considering more artistic ones. Olson explained that creating a public art space has always been at the forefront of the Partnership’s mind and that one of the centerpieces for the park will be the extension of Stephen Korns’ Lunar Cycle Lighting installation from the I-45 overpass all the way to the Shepherd Street Bridge.
Once the extension is completed Korns’ installation will be visible from as far away as the International Space Station, according to the Partnership’s promotional materials. While Buffalo Bayou’s visibility may not extend into orbit just yet, it has already increased.
“People are already asking ‘how did the bayou grow so much?’” said Christian. “The bayou hasn’t grown. The banks have been stabilized and they got rid of the underbrush so now people can see it.