• Buffalo Bayou Park, with the Houston skyline and Michael Graves’ Federal Reserve Bank in the background. Photo by Jonnu Singleton, SWA Group.

Project Buffalo Bayou Park
Client  Buffalo Bayou Partnership
Architect  Page
Landscape Architect SWA Group
Design Team  Page: Lawrence W. Speck, FAIA; Melanie Starman Bash, AIA; Randolph L. Hurst; Tami Merrick, AIA; SWA Group: Kevin Shanley, Scott McCready, Tim Peterson, Michael Robinson, Jiyoung Nam, Josh Lock
Photographers  Pavilions: Albert Vecerka / ESTO; Cistern: Katya Horner
Slight Clutter Photography; Park: Jonnu Singleton, SWA Group

The stretch of Buffalo Bayou from Shepherd Drive to Sabine Street is an urban core park that embodies the wonderful weirdness of Houston along its last bit of riparian wilderness. Here, homelessness, cemeteries, mosquito-eating bats, mansions, public housing, and trails and bridges with skyline views intersect and intertwine with cars on Allen Parkway, kayakers paddling on the water, a brass starburst dandelion, the Houston Police Officer’s Memorial, and Henry Moore’s “Large Spindle Piece.” Nearby, Michael Graves’ Federal Reserve Bank sits like a quiet baron overlooking the Gulf Coast landscape. The site’s iconic history melds with the future of Houston’s green renaissance, where nature and the built environment are being stitched together to become an integral part of the city’s urban design and vitality.

Where Water and Downtown Meet

Nonprofit organization Buffalo Bayou Partnership (BBP), which was founded in 1986, has spearheaded the revitalization of the park. With landscape design provided by SWA Group and buildings by Page, this section of the once-forlorn bayou has been transformed into a destination that encompasses linear green space, flood control, urban development, multi-modal access with hike and bike trails, a dog park, pedestrian bridges, boat landings, trail lights, native species, and a series of public pavilions programmed for a variety of uses.

Public park though it may be, Buffalo Bayou Park was also funded by private donations. The Kinder Foundation gave $30 million, and BBP raised $23 million more from other private donors. The Harris County Flood Control District chipped in $5 million. The Downtown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone is providing $2 million in annual funding for maintenance.

Anne Olson, president of BBP, has overseen beautification, redevelopment, and revitalization along the historic bayou for two decades. She helmed the fundraising and awareness campaigns. “I have seen over 20 years that parks have become more valued by private funders and by government,” she says. “Public-private partnerships are at the heart of large park and green space projects in Houston — Buffalo Bayou Park, Hermann Park, Memorial Park, Emancipation Park, and the Bayou Greenways project. When private donors invest large amounts of funding in these projects, they want to see the parks maintained at a high level. In our case, the Kinder Foundation’s gift was contingent on BBP maintaining and operating the park and the city providing continual funding for the park maintenance.”

Over time, Olson has seen that government has also taken a stronger interest in public park projects. “Mayor Annise Parker was extremely supportive of Buffalo Bayou Park and other green space projects throughout our city,” she says. “Our current mayor, Sylvester Turner, also appears committed to park projects, especially smaller neighborhood parks.”

Boots on the Ground

“The city grew up around Buffalo Bayou,” says Kevin Shanley, principal in charge at SWA. The semi-retired landscape architect spoke from Oregon about the city’s pre-rail days. “It played a critical role in the historic growth of the city and has gone through storied transitions like many of the urban rivers throughout the world. It was an important piece of transportation where salted beef and bales of cotton were shipped to foreign ports. Why is downtown at an odd angle to the rest of the city? It’s because Main Street was laid out perpendicular to the banks of the bayou at Allen’s Landing.”

From its origin in the Katy Prairie, Buffalo Bayou meanders through the city, into the Ship Channel and Galveston Bay, and spills into the Gulf of Mexico. Fed by controlled releases from Addicks and Barker reservoirs, it is also fueled by runoff from streets and parking lots, as well as tributaries White Oak Bayou, Greens Bayou, and Brays Bayou.

“It’s an incredible network of waterways, like veins on a leaf spread across these Gulf Coast plains in channels and streams,” Shanley continues. “A river has an intimate and inseparable relationship with its flood plain.” Historically, the prevailing philosophy was to make the bayous carry more water to solve the conditions of urban growth, especially in the middle of the 20th century. The Houston area’s flat topography, impermeable clay soils, and tremendous rainfalls are the perfect recipe for flash flooding. To combat this, many of the city’s bayous were turned into concrete drainage channels, much in the manner of the Los Angeles River. “These beautiful creeks and bayous were straitjacketed in concrete channels to move water faster,” Shanley says. “Rivers have a different metronome than us. They tick in the hundreds of years timeline, not seconds.” 

Over time, development, planning, and government leaders started thinking differently about Houston’s bayous, which for some time had been viewed as ugly, snake-infested places to dump old refrigerators. In the 1960s, preservation and protection movements started by Terry Hershey emerged to convince others of better control measures than straightening, smoothing, and deepening the bayous. With urban growth came buildings, streets, parking lots, and roofs — impervious surfaces that shed water all at once. New policies promoted by Hershey and others recommended retaining the water and slowly releasing it back into the landscape. As stormwater management policies developed, so did an awareness of the bayou as a resource, and cleanup efforts ensued. “Nature has a way of coming back, and you don’t appreciate it until you walk it and see it,” Shanley says.

Shanley continued to describe aspects of the bayou’s dynamic equilibrium, fluvial geomorphology, water quality, and erosion as rivers and bayous evolve. When Houston hosted the Super Bowl in 2004, the Sabine Promenade improvements helped people see what could be made of its iconic watershed. Shanley hand-sketched a 12-ft-long plan for Buffalo Bayou Partnership to get others to rally around the idea. Fast forward a few years and a series of meetings later to when the Kinder Foundation, who had appreciated how the Sabine Promenade unfolded, made their unprecedented gift for the park, citing it had to happen in five years, needed a master plan, and would need to be maintained and operated.

Shanley, who had lived on Turkey Gully, a stream that feeds White Oak Bayou, had been studying the bayou for years and understood its naturally wild moments along with its highly cultivated aspects. A transplant to Houston, he grew up on the West Coast in a little town with a little stream where his appreciation for hiking, biking, the outdoors, and water was cultivated. He says: “There is a real need to get out and walk a site. I call it ‘boots on the ground.’ No matter how flat and boring you think it is, there is always something to discover. Houston is anything but flat and boring.”

At the Mercy of Water

Larry Speck, FAIA, senior principal at Page, explained that the design approach for the complementary buildings of the park encompassed three tenets: First, the buildings needed a cohesive vocabulary translatable from small pavilions for solitary runners and walkers to medium pavilions for 50-people reunions, and to large structures for public gatherings, musical performances, or yoga classes. Secondly, the architecture needed to address the powerful effects of water on the site. Thirdly, all the buildings needed to offer an extension of the park experience. The language Page developed includes board-formed concrete, deep shade trellises of steel that filter sunlight, a robust presence of hefty concrete piers, the elevation of slabs off the ground and above the flood line, and a blurring between indoors and outdoors.

“We wanted to develop a cohesive vocabulary for all the buildings, but also offer a response for the flood-prone site,” Speck says. “It’s meant to be a drainage way. The solution had to be tough and withstand the abuse of torrential water with hundreds of pounds of tree trunks floating down.”

When the Cistern at Buffalo Bayou Park (a subterranean, concrete drinking-water reservoir built in 1926) was decommissioned in the early 2000s due to an irreparable leak, discussions about its use surfaced even while the city looked for a demolition contractor. Lisa Gray, writing in the Houston Chronicle, described the cavernous, columned space as “stunningly, startlingly beautiful: an industrial cross between a cavern and a cathedral.” Could it be parking? Or maybe mulch storage? “Can we preserve an amazing artifact, and how can we program it in a meaningful way?” Speck muses. It was Shanley who named it the “Cistern,” and a program was developed for the space that included an art and sound installation.

Melanie Starman Bash, AIA, senior associate at Page, was the project architect and manager. Once Speck handed the butter paper and pencil sketches to her, she led the development of the drawings all the way to construction documents. “Larry is very good about letting us find ways to make his design happen,” she says. “He trusts us to make his vision happen.”

It was a complex project to develop, as fundraising was concurrent with the work and planning yielded various deliverables based on how much could be raised. Schemes with and without restaurants were submitted for permitting; the Cistern repurposing didn’t follow the rules of classification and occupation for the city; and parking was a challenge.

While the Kinder Foundation funds had been earmarked for the landscape design, the funds for the buildings were an unknown in the equation. “It was a very start-and-stop process with lots of variables and changes,” Bash says. “And permitting was an extreme challenge since this is in the flood plain, so flood control issues were very difficult to navigate.” That’s not to speak of the surprises during site work, and that along the way, the city required proof that what was drawn was built. It was also challenging, Bash says, to construct buildings with flat roof lines that look light and airy but house deep mechanical walls, several detailed layers of wood and steel, and 4-ft-by-3-ft reinforced concrete columns.

Nonetheless, Bash persevered and understood the immensity of the project’s ability to transform the city. “Opening day was amazing, to go out and see people using the park. Even before it officially opened, there was a definite buzz and excitement surrounding the project. I run on the trails during my lunch and am very much rewarded by seeing people enjoy all of the different elements that this new destination has to offer. You have to respect the environment around you and realize you are at the mercy of water. You have to think carefully about the construction and choose materials that can stand up to that much water.”   

The Happiness Project

Scott McCready, the design team lead from SWA, strolled through the park pointing out its natural nooks and crannies: the redbuds, sycamores, Mexican plum trees, soil depths, slopes, grasses, cylindrical lamp posts, and interventions where nature meets design and engineering. He described the complexities of the site as a “cauldron of forces,” beyond being a major natural drainage channel through the central business district. How can landscape design revitalize a historic waterway to elevate social interactions and increase cultural and business value for the city’s identity? He pointed to various stretches of the park and drew loops around bridges with his finger on a way finding marker near The Water Works building. “As the trails go west, it’s progressively more bucolic, and after Shepherd, it’s wholly wild bayou and goes into private lots,” he said.

One of those private lots is where Guy Hagstette, FAIA, grew up swinging on rope swings into the bayou waters. Hagstette was the project manager for the Buffalo Bayou Park project for BBP, and from his office on Travis Street near Market Square in downtown Houston, he chronologically recounted how the park project came to be.

The park unfolded in multiple phases: It was the bridges, then the trails, followed by the landscape and site lighting, and it had multiple projects layered on top of one another with various entities holding their own jurisdictions. Calling himself a “parkitect,” Hagstette has been known as a green space preacher. He brought his experiences with Sesquicentennial Park and Discovery Green to the table. Says Hagstette: “Buffalo Bayou Park was an opportunity to change how you see the city. There were lots of moving parts, and it was a challenge to nail down all the pieces, from the review processes to involving all the stakeholders and government funders, and satisfying all the requirements.” 

When he was a high school senior, his English teacher gave the class a last assignment: “What makes you happy?” After pondering over the answer, he made a film about the bayou and captured moving images of its banks, vegetation, wilderness, and sky from the vantage point of floating along in a canoe. “Watching the landscape mature with its trees, wild flowers, and plants, it is raw and natural, and I hope we learn from that,” Hagstette says. “We can and did go forever ignoring our parks and environmental issues. But when Houston decides to do something, it does not mess around.”

Florence Tang, Assoc. AIA, is a design professional and journalist based in Houston.

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