Buffalo Bayou Park Is Getting Ready to Open

Despite all the water that has slammed down Buffalo Bayou over the past few months, the bayou was looking good on Monday morning. The steady whine of construction paused briefly as Anne Olson, executive director of Buffalo Bayou Partnership, stood before a cluster of cameras and talked about the changes scheduled to be completed by the time Buffalo Bayou Park opens on October 3. Looking out on the glassy water reflecting the clear blue sky, it was easy to forget about Buffalo Bayou's history as a polluted waterway where bodies tended to appear mysteriously. They still do, of course, but the park itself is currently completing its transformation into a 160-acre bit of green-space that will be a credit to the city. 

The redesign of Buffalo Bayou Park started about four years ago when representatives from the Kinder Foundation approached BBP about making a donation to completely revamp the park. The Kinder Foundation kicked in $30 million in funding, while Harris County Flood Control contributed $5 million and BBP raised $23.5 million in donations.

The only stipulation for the Kinder Foundation money was that BBP would be charged with maintaining the park and that the organization would secure funding to keep the park running and in good shape. BBP secured $2 million in annual funding through Downtown TIRZ, according to Olson.

(We were puzzled about how BBP will be able to get TIRZ money for the maintenance and upkeep of the park since state law prohibits using TIRZ funds for maintenance. We asked BBP about this, and spokeswoman Trudi Smith got back to us. "In basic terms, state law allows TIRZs to maintain their assets, and Buffalo Bayou Park is a TIRZ3 facility," Smith wrote.) 

The project is focused on Buffalo Bayou Park, part of Buffalo Bayou that the BBP has been charged with overseeing. The tract runs from Shepherd Drive to Sabine Street, just outside of downtown, but like most of the bayou, it is prone to flooding, something that the project designers have had to keep in mind as they moved forward with the plan. "One of the most important things to realize about this is that we're in a floodplain," Scott McCready, a landscape architect working on the project, told a little crowd of media gathered outside the new Lost Lake building.

The "Lost Lake" itself was actually a dammed section of the bayou until the dam eroded in the 1970s. When BBP started working on the project, it decided to bring the "lake" back by putting in another damn and replanting a garden around it. The Lost Lake building is a gleaming structure of glass, metal and wood perched on the high ground — it was built in one of the few areas that are above flood level along this section of the bayou — overlooking the newly reconstructed Lost Lake. (It's more of a pond than a lake, really.

McCready stood on the steps of the Lost Lake building and talked about what went into the landscape architecture of Buffalo Bayou Park. The SWA Group, a landscape architecture firm, worked with a fluvial geomorphologist (i.e., a river scientist) to design how they would structure the banks of the bayou that wind through the park. First, Harris County Flood Control went through and dredged this section of the bayou for the first time in 35 years. Then parts of the bayou were widened while other parts were given sharper curves to help the flow of the water, according to McCready. 

From there, McCready says the SWA Group that worked on the project designed it knowing there would be flooding over the years. They put in "benches" on certain banks along the waterway — the beauty of these benches is that when silt piles up on top of them, they can be easily cleared and smoothed over without turning that process into a big production number, McCready says. The SWA Group also planted native species along the bayou, putting in cypress trees along the higher part of the banks and cottonwoods and sycamores in the lower sections (the parts that are more river-like, basically.)

This project is very different from what is being proposed for further upstream with the Memorial Park Demonstration Project. While the Memorial Park Demonstration Project is an incredibly contentious effort, as we've previously reported — that one is focused on redoing a part of the waterway that opponents contend is natural and doesn't need to be changed — BBP's renovations haven't created that kind of tension. This is partly because Harris County Flood Control already came through and cleared and reworked this part of the bayou back in the 1950s, so it's hard to argue that this project is anything but an improvement, Olson says. 

Buffalo Bayou Park was originally slated to open in June, but the plans for that summer grand opening were scrapped after it started raining on May 25 and kept on raining to the point that it felt like the whole city was about to wash away. After the Memorial Day weekend floods, Buffalo Bayou Park was left waterlogged and the whole grand opening had to be pushed back so that the park could be cleaned up.

The flood waters were really a test of the resilience of the park's design, Olson says. The press tour on Monday seemed to be aimed at showing how the park had withstood the onslaught of flood waters. 

After the project designers had done their spiel, reporters, photographers and cameramen were loaded onto golf carts to tour the areas. We motored past the Waterworks Building, which is still very much under construction. Olson says it will be the last thing completed before the grand opening, but once it's done, there will be restrooms and a bike rental place and the space will be great for concerts and performances. We asked about the old cistern that's located below the Waterworks, but it's not being shown yet. (The space will be used for art installations once it's completed, but Olson told us the space won't be finished for another few months.) From there the golf cart tour moved to the other side of the park, taking in the smooth green lawns along the banks. 

The Memorial Day floods were a test of the park's design, McCready told us. They had to replant some trees and plants, but many of the trees held on until the waters receded. After the flood, the grass at Johnny Steele Dog Park was covered in mud and had to be ripped out and freshly sodded. The new grass is still surrounded by protective fencing that will stay there until the new sod has really taken root. Sections of footpaths were also knocked out by the flood, Olson says.

The waters came up and soaked the ground beneath paved parts of the pathway until the ground itself gave way and the paths crumpled into the water, Olson says. The paths have been restored now, and workers were busy setting up a children's playground near the Waterworks. (The playground is completely free of any plastic, Olson pointed out, which we suppose is a good thing.) "A lot of the park is designed to flood, and it held up really well under all that water," Olson says. 

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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray