- Associated Press - Thursday, October 1, 2015

HOUSTON (AP) - Buffalo Bayou has been abused almost from the moment the Allen brothers came ashore in 1836. Cypresses that helped secure the banks were logged early on, and for most of the 20th century, the polluted waterway reeked.

The Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/1VpRh9F ) reports that has changed rather dramatically, especially at Buffalo Bayou Park, where architects, landscapers, construction crews and donors have completed a $58 million metamorphosis of great ambition: giving Houston a signature, verdant downtown gateway. Bikers, runners, lovers, dog walkers and young families with strollers have all taken note, filling its newly poured bikeways and running trails in ever-increasing numbers.

Texas Monthly has already pronounced Houston “fanatically green.”

When Buffalo Bayou Park officially opens Saturday, its 160 acres of green space will appeal to almost everyone, with two new visitors’ centers, a new nature play area with rock climbing, plus rolling lawns and manicured gardens that merge into restored woodlands and meadows.

“New York has Central Park and the High Line. Other big cities have their parks, and I feel like this is really nice for Houston,” said Khoa Tran one recent afternoon.

He had just finished running 20 sprints up and down an embankment near Sabine Street with his friends Ben Cockrill and Quoc Tran after their workout at a nearby gym.

Kay Duque and Arthur Martinez picnicked on a promontory near the Houston Police Officers’ Memorial, sharing a blanket with Duque’s dog, Sasha. They came to the park for a casual date on a day off of work.

Duque likes the promontory for its views. Houston doesn’t look flat from this vantage point. Downtown’s skyline rises to the east, beyond a natural-looking grove of young sycamores, cottonwoods and cypress trees that line the low bayou. The park gives Houstonians a new perspective on the city.

Casual users weren’t common at the memorial before the overhaul.

“We really didn’t have any reason to come out here until recently,” Duque said.

Landscape architect Scott McCready of SWA, the project’s lead consultant, thinks four new pedestrian bridges that divide the park into five quadrants have helped make it more inviting.

“Before, if you came to the bayou, you were committed to a two- or three-hour journey. Now you can come down for just a half-hour and do a small loop,” he said.

The wood, steel and glass visitors’ centers anchor each end of the park. Rental kayaks and canoes fill the underside of the Lost Lake center, where Clark Cooper Concepts serves grab-and-go food and operates the Dunlavy, a private event space.

Closer to downtown, the new Water Works center offers bike rentals. A new Sky Lawn with a performance pavilion occupies a hill there. By month’s end, sculptor Donald Lipski’s trellis-shaded “Periscope” will offer a peek underground into a 2-acre cistern that eventually will hold sound and light art installations.

The private Buffalo Bayou Partnership raised most of the funds to build the park, starting with a $30 million catalyst gift from Kinder Foundation in 2010. The Harris County Flood Control District contributed $5 million.

The city, with tax reinvestment zone money, will contribute $2 million annually toward park maintenance. Previously, the city could budget only $125,000 for trash pickup and mowing between Allen Parkway and Memorial Drive. Private funding is essential to major park improvements across the city, parks and recreation director Joe Turner said.

Philanthropist Richard Kinder, executive chairman of the energy pipeline giant Kinder Morgan, said the maintenance agreement was an “absolute condition” to his foundation’s gift.

“The last thing we wanted is for this to turn out the way it is right now and then three or five years from now it turns into a piece of crud because some future administration says, ‘We’ve got other things to do with our money,’?” Kinder said.

No matter how much money the city throws at it, Buffalo Bayou will always flood periodically. The park’s grand opening was delayed by heavy spring rains and the Memorial Day flood. Storm water scraped the grass from the new Johnny Steele Dog Park, destroyed six sections of asphalt paths and damaged the electrical system for the park’s custom lunar-cycle lights, which change color with the phases of the moon.

The park’s structures can withstand submersion and floating debris. But the cleanup cost more than $200,000, project manager Guy Hagstette said. Flood repairs are an expected and important component of the maintenance budget. “We went into this with our eyes open,” he said.

Buffalo Bayou formed about 18,000 years ago. Flowing 53 miles from a spring west of Katy to Galveston Bay, it now traverses some of Houston’s most populated neighborhoods.

McCready calls the bayou a “stressed natural stream in an urban environment.” Especially west of Shepherd, the banks have been impacted for a century by the urbanization of the watershed around them.

City fathers envisioned parkland west of downtown as early as 1910, when landscape architect Arthur Comey advised them the bayou’s banks weren’t appropriate for much else. Houston bought what is now Buffalo Bayou Park in 1912.

George Kessler’s 1914 park plan included a landscaped mall, golf links, pavilions and a pedestrian promenade, but funds ran out during World War I. A decade later, a similar fate befell an even bigger idea to continue the ribbon of green along the bayou’s north banks to Memorial Park.

Flood control methods have evolved drastically since the 1950s, when the Army Corps of Engineers excavated channels into the Buffalo Bayou Park section, also clearing native vegetation.

Extreme erosion just west of the park also impacted the bayou’s flow. Most of the property on both banks between Shepherd and Memorial Park is privately owned, and no one has ever agreed on how to manage it. That’s where the controversial, proposed mile-long Memorial Park Demonstration Project remains stalled.

To revive the bayou within the park, the Harris County Flood Control District removed 10,000 truckloads of silt that had built up. It also planted about 3,500 of the park’s 14,000 new trees to help keep banks in place and used natural channel design techniques to create a more exaggerated oxbow of the bayou north of the Police Officers’ Memorial to slow the water’s storm flow.

It also moved earth to form meadows for retrieving silt that settles on the banks during floods.

“Any stream is going to regrade itself, but we’re trying to bring it into more equilibrium,” district executive director Mike Talbott said. “We’re trying to help nature do what it wants to do.”

He hopes the new park convinces doubters upstream of the good that can be done.

“We’re not environmentalists,” Talbott said, “but we’re flood people who work with the environment.”

The park’s redevelopment has helped spur at least four major real estate development projects near its perimeter, including luxury apartments and an office building.

The partnership says about 44,000 households are a 10-minute walk from Buffalo Bayou Park, and a half-million people live within a 30-minute bike ride.

Finance trader Noor Sammour is among the thousands of young professionals who live nearby. He usually rides three fast laps on his bike around the bayou after work.

He moved to Houston five years ago from Austin, and Buffalo Bayou Park reminds him of Austin’s Lady Bird Lake greenway.

“I love it,” he said. “When I first moved here, it wasn’t like this at all. There were no lights, no volleyball court, no landscaping. I used to go to Memorial; I think this is a lot prettier.”

The Kinders also ride along Buffalo Bayou every weekend.

“I love the concrete trail, but you get down on that asphalt trail and you would never realize you’ve got cars whizzing by 50 feet away,” Richard Kinder said.

Buffalo Bayou Partnership president Anne Olson has a long list of other improvements outlined in a master plan for revitalizing the bayou all the way to the Turning Basin. The park happened relatively quickly because it was public land, but the remaining sectors involve at least 12 property owners through the rapidly-gentrifying East End.

“It will be a very different plan,” Olson said.

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Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com

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