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Feature Article - March 2018

From Industrial to Recreational

Ideas in Waterfront Restoration

By Dave Ramont


Buffalo Bayou starts just west of Katy, Texas, and flows approximately 53 miles east through the Port of Houston into Galveston Bay and on to the Gulf of Mexico. The bayou has played a critical role in the birth and evolution of Houston. In 1986, Buffalo Bayou Partnership (BBP) was founded, with a focus on enhancing a 10-mile stretch of the bayou in Houston. To date, through the support of corporations, individuals, foundations and government agencies, BBP has raised and leveraged well over $150 million for the redevelopment and stewardship of the waterfront. In 2002, BBP's visionary 20-year Master Plan was issued, with the goal of balancing conservation and development, and creating projects that serve multiple purposes: recreation, flood management and ecosystem restoration.

There are many considerations for a community thinking about a waterfront restoration project. Every site has its own unique set of characteristics.

Anne Olson is president of BBP, working with them since 1995, and she said they're moving forward with all sorts of projects. "We've concentrated mainly just west of downtown Houston, so now we're moving east, right now doing a master planning effort for that stretch of the bayou, all the way to the Port of Houston Turning Basin."

To date, the crown jewel of BBP's efforts has been the opening of Buffalo Bayou Park in late 2015, a 160-acre, 2.3-mile stretch of the bayou featuring hiking and bike trails. New pedestrian bridges have been built, including the 345-foot long Jackson Hill Bridge, which soars 40 feet over the bayou. There are two visitor centers, a sand volleyball court, pavilions and public art. Food trucks are often on-site. Gardens and trail lighting have been added, and BBP has reintroduced native landscaping, including more than 14,000 trees. Bike, canoe, kayak and paddleboat rentals generate revenue, as does a café and various festivals and concerts.

There are parks within Buffalo Bayou Park, including Eleanor Tinsley Park, which has an amphitheater and hosts many large-scale events, including the city's Fourth of July celebration. There's a skatepark, and the two-acre Johnny Steele Dog Park features dog ponds, washing stations, water play features, benches and shade structures. The Water Works, formerly an abandoned four-acre city water system site, will host performances and events. The Cistern, a former drinking water reservoir built in 1926, has been repurposed into a magnificent public space with changing art installations. The Barbara Fish Daniel Nature Play Area has many play features, including a tri-level treehouse/boat deck with climbing net. The Dunlavy is a multi-purpose private event space which also houses The Kitchen, a grab-and-go food counter serving breakfast and lunch.

Olson said that since Buffalo Bayou has always flooded, resiliency has been a guiding principle when considering design. But she added that they were really tested when Hurricane Harvey hit in August 2017. "Lots of erosion and lots of sediment in the park we had recently opened. That was the one site that got it the worst; we spent close to a million dollars just hauling off sediment."

Since Harvey was such a record storm, it's hard to know if work done along the bayou helped minimize damage, according to Olson, but she feels it may have. "All of the parks and trails that we developed have been designed to flood."

Working with the Harris County Flood Control District, designers created a landscape that helps channel runoff and provides greater floodwater conveyance capacity. Park amenities such as signage, stair railings, benches and trash receptacles were constructed with extremely durable materials to withstand the large amounts of debris that flow down the bayou during flooding events.

During Harvey, Buffalo Bayou Park was inundated with water that rose a record 38.7 feet at their Shepard Drive Bridge. The upper portions of the park fared well, but the bottom two-thirds were greatly affected, remaining underwater for weeks as the Army Corps of Engineers released water from two reservoirs. Some areas had significant erosion and bank failures, and trails and footpaths were damaged, along with lighting and some electrical systems. Many trees were downed. The dog park and nature play area remained closed for months, and boat rentals have been curtailed until spring. And while none of the buildings were significantly damaged, BBP did lose a lot of equipment, including mowers, Bobcats, golf carts, a boat and dock and equipment used for cleanup operations.

About 50 miles southeast of Houston, Galveston Island State Park was hardly affected by Harvey, but Hurricane Ike caused almost complete devastation there in 2008. Duggan's firm created a redevelopment master plan which sets a new precedent for coastal recreation planning, by anticipating what of the site will remain in 50 years.

"Every storm is different, but the concepts of anticipating storm surge inundation, salt water intrusion, and wind velocities should be considered on all coastal sites. The biggest consideration facing Galveston is the predicted land loss over the next 50 years, a complex phenomenon that will be affected by overlapping issues of sea level rise, storm event frequency and intensity, and other factors," Duggan said. He added that a successful master plan must predict and plan for the migration of habitat and public use, protecting investments and allowing for natural systems and wildlife to endure rather than simply disappear. Ultimately, after an extensive outreach process involving displaced residents, a multitude of overnight and recreation opportunities was formulated.

Not all waterfront restoration projects are multi-year, multi-million dollar undertakings. Many communities, resorts, campgrounds and YMCAs have found that enhancing a body of water—whether it's a river, coastal area, lake or pond—can provide many conservation benefits, as well as attract users and generate revenue. Even quarries are being reclaimed as nature areas, sometimes offering sandy beaches, cliff diving, zip lining, wakeboarding, fishing, scuba diving and rock climbing.

The city of Santa Rosa, N.M., was looking for ways to bring in tourists, and they decided to enhance a largely unused public lake, Park Lake, making it a summer playground. They added amenities including a waterslide, diving board, pedalboats and canoes. Their popular inflatable water structure includes monkey bars, rope and "rock" climbing, slides, a raceway obstacle and more. The city now charges admission and vehicle fees, with the park proving a big success with locals and tourists alike.

Back in Houston, they have a strong program built around community service workers, including probationers and even Harris County inmates, who assist with park and on-the-water cleanup efforts. But they also have a robust volunteer program, and after Harvey, more than 1,000 volunteers pitched in to help clean up and restore their Buffalo Bayou Park, according to Olson. This outpouring reinforces the idea that residents are proud of their natural surroundings and amenities, and communities should consider such things as waterfronts and waterways an asset to embrace and preserve.

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