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Beautifying the bayou

I for one certainly hope that the current efforts to turn Buffalo Bayou into a useful recreational resource are a smashing success. This appeals to me as a preservationist, as an environmentalist, and just as someone who wants to see a vital urban core in Houston. I can’t help but feel a little dubious about the whole thing, though, since Lord knows this isn’t the first time this sort of thing has been tried.

Anne Olson has a different view of Buffalo Bayou. She envisions the bayou at Allen’s Landing as a downtown playground for kayakers, as a background for walkers and joggers, as a green and historic gathering place for strollers, picnickers and tourists.

“Our goal is to activate the bayou with more boating, with hiking and biking, with food, with events,” says Olson, president of Buffalo Bayou Partnership.

“It’s Houston’s greatest natural amenity. It’s where the city was founded. I’m always amazed that people don’t know where Allen’s Landing is.”

She smiles. “It’s our birthplace, darn it. It needs to be more than it is today.”

Turning Allen’s Landing on Buffalo Bayou, where Houston began 171 years ago this week, into an active water and lawn amenity has long been a dream of city boosters. Noble efforts have been made, but attracting Houstonians to the downtown waterway has been sidetracked by, at different times, pollution, floods, lack of funds, apathy, area blight, wrong approaches, homeless campers — you name it.

Buffalo Bayou Partnership is confident the dream will soon become reality. In the spring, it will launch a $3 million rehabilitation of the 97-year-old International Coffee Company Building adjacent to Allen’s Landing, turning it into a site bike, canoe and kayak rentals, dining and other activities. The partnership hired the prestigious San Antonio firm Lake/Flato architects to design the space. Olson estimates completion of the project by fall 2009.

The park could become either a starting place for excursions by foot, wheel or water, or a destination for paddlers to share food and drink. It’s all part of Buffalo Bayou Partnership’s master plan, Buffalo Bayou and Beyond, a 20-year vision now in its fifth year.

Is there, like, a Gantt chart or something somewhere showing the progress and current status of this 20-year project? I don’t mean to be snarky, but maybe seeing a few “Where we were then” and “Where we are now” pictures might help me feel more confident about this endeavor.

“Downtown has been transformed in the last 10 years with light rail and Discovery Park and major efforts by Buffalo Bayou Coalition (now Partnership) and landscaping of the roads,” says Stephen Klineberg, Rice sociology professor and director of the annual Houston Area Survey. “Four-and-a-half-billion dollars have been spent over the last 10 years of public and private investment in downtown.”

No doubt, downtown is a different place now, more of a destination than before. Perhaps that was a necessary first step for real success at turning Buffalo Bayou into something better. Check back with me in 2009 when that International Coffee Company Building renovation is complete and we’ll see how I feel then.

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