Path to Nowhere
By Greg Harman
Kirk Farris has been mixing it up on the bayou for years. As he wheels his pickup over the green banks and under the overpasses around the eastern stretch of Buffalo Bayou, a tangled, neglected frontier on the edge of downtown, he thrusts an arm out the window. That heap of weeds hides a turn-of-the-century trash pit; across the far bank is the city's abandoned incinerator. Farris knows this land. He's even been known to run his thick fingers across brassy guitar strings at a local open-mike and croon sorrowfully about it, "Just a bayou."
This man was instrumental in creating a neighborhood park near the McKee Street Bridge -- with no more than the city's and county's moral support -- before anyone had dreamed of redeveloping downtown's northeast corner. So the veteran activist was particularly elated when, after years of city failure, a local developer fired up a used bulldozer and began carving hike-and-bike trails along the water's edge.
Farris was among the crowds of bikers and preservationists who cheered as the trails first began to take shape along the northern banks. He wrote the man behind the machine -- developer Alan Atkinson -- that "the power of getting things done is in the air."
It was getting easier to envision the length of this water-laced greenbelt boasting paths similar to those that had attracted Houstonians for decades to the bayou's western flanks along Allen Parkway.
Two years later, that support is beginning to crumble amid safety concerns. The trails don't meet federal guidelines. They are already suffering from erosion and other problems that could jeopardize their future as public paths.
"We used to brag about his trails because we thought they were wonderful," Farris says. "We hadn't looked."
In early 2003, Atkinson roared into action. In his mind, he was more than leveling ground for bike paths. He was punching through a decade-plus of bureaucratic roadblocks and delayed plans for the trail network. The city had only recently announced that its second engineering study for these bike trails had left no money for the actual construction. Negotiations with the affected property owners had been difficult, to say the least.
"I got angry and said, 'I'll do it myself,' " Atkinson recalls. "I was basically trying to embarrass the city, saying, 'If little Alan Atkinson can build this trail, why can't you?' "
He started work on his property near Jensen Street, following exactly the plans provided by the city. But as the trails pushed west, they began to deviate.
During this period, the city of Houston Pedestrian-Bicycle Advisory Committee called the results "the most unique approach to trail building the [HPBAC] has encountered." But even then the group encouraged use of federal and state construction guidelines and complained that trails were going in too close to the steep bayou banks.
Several property owners who pitched in to pay for their own trail portions were interested in keeping the most land possible for future development and profits. That pushed the paths even closer than the recommended two feet of clearance from the embankment's slope.
In January, the nonprofit Buffalo Bayou Partnership, which had been coordinating the trail effort, received its first report on Atkinson's progress.
Architect Ian Rosenberg scoured the two miles of pavement, finding areas where cement joints and seams were already crumbling. With Houston's weather, these sections can only be expected to worsen. His report told of exposed rebar waiting to snag cyclists' tires.
In other trail sections, the underlying earthen foundations were eroding away from rainwater runoff. And a poorly constructed canopy under a railroad trestle -- where Atkinson says he underspent the city's original budget by $1.5 million -- was deemed hazardous because of roughly cut metal along the roof's edges. Fencing along it was poorly installed and looked "cheap," Rosenberg found.
But BBP president Anne Olson said the partnership's attorney was only concerned with the lack of railings where the trail is especially close to quick drop-offs. Railings are going up now in some areas.
To pay for it, the group will pull from the remaining $150,000 of a $500,000 bonanza received from Williams Brothers Construction Company. The road-building giant agreed to pay the money to fund the trails in return for having four felony pollution charges dismissed by the county.
Olson and Atkinson say the majority of the bayou trail between McKee Street and Jensen Street has been built with property owners' money, although the partnership funded administrative costs and sections built over rights-of-way belonging to TxDOT or railroads.
Olson says the partnership has reimbursed Atkinson $18,900 for work he did over TxDOT property. Atkinson estimates he has received about double that amount from the group.
Barry Reese, former chairman of the Houston Pedestrian-Bicycle Advisory Committee, says there are significant reasons to be worried about what is happening with the trails.
"My concern is that the public interest not be abused," says Reese. "If we're dealing with inadequately designed and constructed facilities that might be a hazard to someone because they're not following [the Americans with Disabilities Act] and other proper engineering standards, these are serious concerns."
Atkinson insists his trails are only a hair's width away from meeting federal and TxDOT guidelines. "They know what the facts are, and so do I. So when they say, 'They don't meet our standards,' well, yes, they do. And I would debate that with them until my face got blue."
Some trail sections have steeper inclines or sharper turns than called for in disabilities act standards used by both the state and the city. But Atkinson just chuckles when he thinks of wheelchairs trying to compete with rayon-clad enthusiasts racing by at 20 miles per hour. "From a practical standpoint, this was designed as a bikeway," he says. "That's Alan's potshot."
Atkinson's more "inspired" approach to trail building also did without sheet-metal pilings near the McKee Street Bridge. City engineers were sure that without those reinforcements, the trail eventually would be swept into the bayou.
"It's been there almost a year and a half…I don't see any evidence that it's ever going to wash away," Atkinson says.
Olson supports his logic.
"We've tried to build them as close to city and federal guidelines as possible, but we don't have to because we're not using federal money," she says. "When you use private funds, you don't have to be so exact."
But safety concerns are coloring the debate over the trails' future.
Critics have been wrestling with TxDOT and the city for months, complaining that Atkinson's pathway decisions at the eastern portion of the trail would make it more difficult to see oncoming traffic on Runnels Street. Nearby, an incomplete trail portion running directly under a series of power lines close to Farris's neighborhood park is stalled in legal limbo.
And late last month, state Representative Jessica Farrar stepped into the fray. Warning of serious hazards, she urged state transportation officials to keep Atkinson from proceeding with his bike-path plans at Runnels.
With so many potential headaches involved, a key question remains about who will take over liability and maintenance responsibilities.
The nonprofit, which has been unsuccessful in getting the city to agree to assume responsibility of the trails, is gathering the easements itself for a planned public opening next month.
Olson says the city parks department doesn't have the money to take over the trails. City of Houston bikeway coordinator Lilibeth Andre says that the city requested engineering designs from the partnership to consider the possibility. However, to date, no plans have been submitted. ("She's never asked me for any engineering plans," Olson says.)
Meanwhile, a TxDOT engineer working on other city trails that will link with the partnership's offers another possible spin on city sentiment.
"I don't think they're going to take over 'em. I think they're afraid of the liability," says Mark Patterson, who works in TxDOT's contracts division. "They really don't meet all the design criteria for a bicycle path -- or a sidewalk, for that matter."
One local businessman knowledgeable about the project , who asked that his name not be used, goes a step further in his criticism. "They're just doing a 21st-century snow job for promoting real estate development on the bayou. That's all it is."
Farris can't help but notice the changes on the bayou as he patiently mows the grass at James Bute Park and visits with the park's neighbors: homeless residents whom development eventually will shuffle along.
"Alan basically attempted to bully other people by pouring his concrete first," Farris says. "Thirteen years ago this was an ethical program with the community's interest at heart…Now they're getting a completely different product altogether. These trails are not even likely to last."