Mother Nature's Drainage Ditch

OK, so Houston's Buffalo Bayou isn't exactly the Seine. In fact, among urban rivers, it's one of the ugliest, a big, muddy stream that floods regularly.
November 2002
By Otis White  |  Contributor
President of Civic Strategies Inc.

OK, so Houston's Buffalo Bayou isn't exactly the Seine. In fact, among urban rivers, it's one of the ugliest, a big, muddy stream that floods regularly. Even civic leaders call it "Mother Nature's drainage ditch." But if the business community and local governments get their way, Buffalo Bayou will one day be a place for romantic dinners, inspiring vistas and lovely riverwalks. A local nonprofit, the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, has commissioned a study that shows how a 10-mile stretch of the river can be redeveloped over the next 20 years. Cost: $800 million in public funds and an anticipated $5.5 million in private investment. What will this buy? A botanical gardens (where an abandoned sewage-treatment plant now stands), an island with an amphitheater, a performing arts center and 850 acres of parks. Private investments: restaurants, shopping complexes and mixed-income residential developments. Local officials and business leaders are excited by the plans. It's about time. As one of the consultants who worked on the plan noted, "This land [by the river] is so underused that they've put prisons on it. Nobody would dream of doing that in any other city that I can think of."


Speaking of water: Detroit's municipal system is owed $59.3 million in unpaid bills, the Detroit News reports. More than a third of all water users in the city don't pay, and the city's response, by and large, has been to do nothing. Only one in five of the deadbeat accounts is ever turned off. These revelations couldn't come at a worse time. The city water system, which supplies water to the suburbs, is considering a major rate increase to pay for water and sewer upgrades. If the city could get the deadbeats to pay, the newspaper figures, it could finance two years' worth of improvements without an increase. The water department's response? First, agency officials dispute the News' numbers, although they have provided no evidence that the number of deadbeats was lower than reported. Then they shrug. What are you going to do if people don't pay their bills, one official asks. "You can't just cut off water. It is safety. It is public health we have to protect." But other big cities have much smaller bad-debt water problems than Detroit. Philadelphia has 15 percent of its water accounts in arrears and Houston has 6 percent. Detroit's own suburbs have reduced their past-due accounts to less than 5 percent by tacking overdue bills onto the annual property taxes and then collecting them aggressively.


If ever there were an argument for locating art museums carefully, the Barnes Foundation of suburban Philadelphia is it. The foundation (it's actually an arts complex with a gallery, classrooms and gardens) is located in Lower Merion and is considered an artistic treasure, with 181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 60 Matisses and other masterpieces. But prized as it might be elsewhere, the Barnes is considered a pain in Lower Merion, which caps its weekly visitors at 1,200 and demands that the foundation charge no more than $5 per person. Recently, the foundation board asked a court to allow it to break the detailed will of its founder, Albert C. Barnes, and let it relocate the gallery and classrooms to downtown Philadelphia. Would Philadelphia turn up its nose at the Barnes, as Lower Merion has? Hardly. Three major Philadelphia foundations have pledged to provide $3.1 million in operating funds for the next two years and help raise $150 million for a new building and endowment if the court allows the museum to relocate. "This will be fabulous for the region," says one foundation leader. If the Barnes comes to the city, one leader said, Philadelphia would suddenly have "a magic museum mile." And Lower Merion would have less bother with those pesky art lovers.


What do you do with the old basketball or hockey arena when your city builds a new one? Well, if you're like officials in most places, you tear it down. Hence, the loss of some once-familiar sites, such as Boston Garden, Chicago Stadium and Atlanta's Omni. But apparently, Dallas officials are more sentimental than most. They have a new arena, American Airlines Center, for their basketball and hockey teams, but are holding on to the old one, Reunion Arena. So far, it's causing them nothing but grief. The management company that was handling the arena's bookings has backed out of its five-year contract, saying it was losing about $1 million a year. "Second [arenas] in major cities like this do not work," says one corporate executive. "There isn't enough business to fill enough nights to pay the overhead." Although a few cities (Miami, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Portland, Oregon) try to make the two-arena situation work, they usually fail. As a result, most cities that don't bulldoze the old facility convert it to a completely different use. Los Angeles' Great Western Forum, for instance, is now owned by a church. Ditto in Houston, where Compaq Center will become a church when the Houston Rockets move out next year.