This article, written by Molly Glentzer, was first published in the Houston Chronicle on December 9, 2020.
On sunny days this time of year, the charms of Tony Marron Park are many: Plentiful green space and trees, a playground, a path along the bayou with a view toward downtown. With or without a pandemic, neighborhood havens like this are important to the health and well-being of those who live nearby, maybe within walking or biking distance.
But Tony Marron Park does not have nearly the bells and whistles of green spaces in more affluent parts of the city, such as Buffalo Bayou Park and Memorial Park’s new Eastern Glades. Yet.
Change is coming. Maybe even within two or three years. Houston Endowment announced this week that it has awarded a $10 million grant to the Buffalo Bayou Partnership to accelerate three key projects of a master plan for the bayou’s east sector that will spread the green space wealth.
While the master plan is only about a year old, the ideas behind it have been the stuff of dreams for at least a decade. The gift is a catalyst “to give people confidence that this is going to get done, and get done soon,” says Houston Endowment president and CEO Ann Stern.
A rendering of a nature trail along Japhet Creek that will connect Fifth Ward residents to Buffalo Bayou, as envisioned in the Buffalo Bayou East master plan. Asakura Robinson has been hired to design the project.
Credit: Michael van Valkenburgh Associates / Buffalo Bayou Partnership
It’s also a prelude to a capital campaign — likely launching next year — that will transform Tony Marron Park, Japhet Creek and a wharf at Turkey Bend into signature destinations. Three design teams are already on the job, creating more specific blueprints, so other potential donors can see more precisely what their millions will support.
“You need planning money on the front end, and sometimes those dollars are the hardest to get,” Stern says. “We think we will see a lot of the other funding come rather quickly.”
Chosen by a selection committee of Partnership board members and stakeholders, most of the signature project designers already have an impressive track record of work at other Houston parks.
Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates is collaborating with Houston’s Natalye Appel Architects on the redesign of the city-owned Tony Marron Park, aiming to create a more vibrant central green space and recreational anchor for the East End and Second Ward. With adjacent land acquired by the Partnership, the park will grow from 19 to about 40 acres.
Asakura Robinson is designing a nature trail along Japhet Creek, a nearly-disappeared tributary just across the bayou from Tony Marron Park. That project will connect Fifth Ward residents to the waterfront. Reed Hilderbrand and Boston’s NADAA (intentionally selected as a new player) are designing a new concert and event venue at Turkey Bend that will repurpose docks and a warehouse.
Buffalo Bayou Partnership president and CEO Anne Olson expects to see completed designs from each team by next summer.
The big gift also provides monies to stabilize bayou banks and repair existing trail links, acquire more land, begin phase 1 site improvements at Japhet Creek and add a community engagement manager to the Partnership’s staff.
Those things are just as important as designing destinations, Olson says. “The great thing is that this part of the bayou doesn’t flood, but the banks are really steep, and there was a lot of erosion during Hurricane Harvey. And the price of land has escalated so much since we began. Once we identify a target it is usually a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
The full east sector master plan proposes 40 miles of new and improved waterfront trails and bikeways; 200 acres of parks and unique public spaces; seven new boat landings and seven new pedestrian bridges. Realizing all of it will likely be a 20-year, $300 million undertaking, Olson says. Counting the new grant, the Partnership has raised $17 million to date.
The Endowment has been a long-time supporter of parks in general, investing about $90 million across the city in the past 20 years. This gift was unusually large, however, and brings its years of support for the Buffalo Bayou Partnership to $21 million total.
“We’ve been waiting for this,” Stern says. “Even nine years ago we were talking about the East End, and celebrating part of the bayou that reflects Houston’s history and diversity. These neighborhoods are important to us, and they are such a park desert where we can capitalize on the beauty of nature. We want to see this done.”