Reckless driving, potholed pavement, and congestion have turned Houston’s Allen Parkway from the scenic drive developers envisioned 80 years ago into a seething highway that curbs pedestrian access to Buffalo Bayou Park. Plans to revamp and re-green the artery, which connects the tony River Oaks neighborhood with downtown, have been approved by city officials and the Downtown Houston Management District, with an emphasis on encouraging car-reliant Houstonians to break in the new footpaths and two new pedestrian bridges that now link the surrounding neighborhoods to the park.
Last year, the City of Houston and TxDOT outfitted the 5-mile Sandy Reed Memorial Trail in Buffalo Bayou Park with 10 foot-wide multi-use concrete pathways for cyclists and joggers. On Allen Parkway itself, pedestrian-activated crossings will be established, where, currently, jaywalkers have to chance it in the crossfire of speeding vehicles, since there are no traffic lights east of Shepherd.
“[Allen Parkway] has been the driveway for CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, but there are very few traffic signals and the sidewalks are narrow,” said Scott McCready of SWA Group, which built the Rosemont Bridge in Buffalo Bayou Park in 2009 as part of the Shepherd to Sabine Master Plan. The Allen Parkway project builds on this plan, which oversaw the sprucing up of historic buildings such as the State National Bank and downtown’s Main Street. Decreasing speed limits 40 mph to 35 mph will hopefully calm driving patterns, and three concrete medians separating the heavily trafficked lanes will be planted with vegetation to engender some sense of a peaceful drive.
“On Allen Parkway we’ve added a couple of traffic signals on Gillette Street and Waugh Street,” said McCready. “So all of that will provide access from the south of Buffalo Bayou Park and visitors can now have a number of crossing opportunities along key pedestrian quarters.”
The redesign is adding a new eastbound lane, moving westbound traffic into the existing eastbound lane, and turning the existing westbound lane into an access road and parking area for the park. “A large focus of the park redesign is to enhance the vitality of the natural systems, but we also want to broaden the park infrastructure to accommodate the elderly, people with kids, and that starts with safe access,” said McCready.
In addition to the Allen Parkway project, SWA is working with Boston landscape architecture firm Reed Hilderbrand on the project to improve the entire 160-acre Buffalo Bayou Park. The plans entail converting 50 percent of the land into meadows, and alternating shaded woodlands with what McCready called “outdoor rooms” designed for particular activities, like picnics or ballgames. “It clearly defines where active use happens and it allows for connective tissues so that plant and animal communities can move through the park. And then from an experiential standpoint as you’re walking along a trail, to be enclosed in these spaces creates a little respite from the city,” he elaborated.
Also in the pipeline are destination features such as The Water Works, which boasts an elevated sky lawn and pavilion from which to view Houston’s skyline. Meanwhile, Eleanor Tinsley Park, which is located where Buffalo Bayou Park meets downtown, will receive a new open-air pavilion and a trail that directly connects joggers and cyclists to the Sabine Promenade. “This is one of the few areas where you’ll see deciduous trees. Not to say that they don’t exist elsewhere but because commercial real estate likes to have a consistent look year-round, this is where we can celebrate diversity,” said McCready. This horticultural diversity, he said, will help turn Allen Parkway into the welcoming gateway it was meant to be.