Residents and workers in and around Houston’s Upper Kirby District neighborhood southwest of downtown are hoping that a $15 million redevelopment of Levy Park resurrects a green space that for years was little more than an afterthought.
Early returns suggest they have little to worry about. The mid–20th century six-acre (2.4 ha) park officially reopened on February 25 some 19 months after the park’s reconstruction began. Throughout the day, thousands of people took in a central playground flanked by two large lawns, 30 mature oak trees, rain and community gardens, a dog park, and other elements. All were designed to foster a heavy dose of daily programming such as yoga, t’ai-chi and dance classes, concerts, plays, and family story hours.
“The park worked right off the bat,” says Doug Overman, park director for the Levy Park Conservancy, the park’s manager and an affiliate of the nonprofit Upper Kirby District Foundation. “We saw the audience that we wanted to attract to the park—diverse and representative of Greater Houston, with a lot of families and kids.”
While Overman was pleased with the response, he was not surprised. The redevelopment plan crafted by landscape architect Office of James Burnett (OJB) and placemaking consultant Biederman Redevelopment Ventures (BRV) generated comparisons to Discovery Green in downtown Houston, a successful public space twice the size of Levy Park.
The fact that the firms had previously worked together by partnering on two other projects, including the design and programming for Klyde Warren Park spanning the Woodall Rodgers Freeway in Dallas, only boosted that optimism. People were already finding their way to the once hard-to-find Levy Park days before it opened, says Chip Trageser, a principal with OJB.
“I was giving a tour and there were kids playing Ping-Pong and foosball, and people out with their dogs, and reading books,” he says. “We saw more activity before the park was open than what we saw before we started working on it. It was pretty sleepy.”
Benjamin Donsky, vice president of BRV, calls Levy Park possibly the best park the firm has completed outside of New York. Key to that declaration, he says, is the green space’s ability to serve the needs of everyday neighborhood users and the city at large. “From a design and programming standpoint, the park will feel great when there are 75 people in it on a Thursday evening,” he says, “and it will feel great when there are 4,000 people there for a large event on a Saturday.”
A 2,000-square-foot (186 sq m) performance pavilion with a curved concrete roof designed by Natalye Appel + Associates Architects will host the biggest citywide events. The stage looks out onto a 42,000-square-foot (3,900 sq m) event lawn. Meanwhile, in addition to more active programs, frequent park-goers can take aim on a putting green, play chess or checkers, settle down with a book in the reading area, or take advantage of free wi-fi, among other distractions.
Daniel Biederman, principal of BRV, credits confidence in the park to the firm’s practice of working with designers and holding community charrettes early in the planning process to determine the programming. “Very often, architects who are brought on to program parks don’t think that way,” he says. “They may draw an oval lawn here and put a diagonal pathway there that look good from 40,000 feet [12,200 m], but they really don’t meet the community’s needs.”
Levy Park’s beginnings date to 1941 when Leon Levy, a descendant of a local merchant family, deeded the land to the city with instructions to make it a park. Over the years, however, the park became less visited—a single dead-end road into the green space restricted access while a major highway and surrounding development limited visibility. Early this century, the Upper Kirby Redevelopment Authority took over the park’s management from the city and took stabs at a few improvements. Over time, the organization laid the groundwork for the redevelopment and paid for it using tax increment financing funds.
The redevelopment authority also acquired land around the park that had largely been assembled by the Upper Kirby foundation over time. Then in 2012, the redevelopment authority signed Houston-based Midway Development to a 99-year ground lease, the proceeds from which are going toward Levy Park’s management and maintenance. Last year, Midway completed a 270-unit apartment project and a 225,000-square-foot (21,000 sq m) office building with 25,000 square feet (2,300 sq m) of ground-floor restaurant space and an 850-space parking garage.
In addition, a property deal with the city expanded the park by a half-acre (0.4 ha), creating a more uniform east–west rectangle orientation. That and new streets have improved access, says Jamie Brewster, president of the Upper Kirby District.
The ground-lease funding model is new to Overman, who worked off and on for the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy for several years before taking the Levy Park job midway through 2016. In addition to those funds, he plans to establish corporate partnerships to underwrite events and a giving program, he says. What’s more, three up-and-coming food-and-beverage concessions will provide income streams, and celebrity chef Tim Love will oversee the operations.
The host of Restaurant Startup on CNBC and founder of several restaurants primarily in Texas, Love will open a 6,500-square-foot (600 sq m) Woodshed eatery in mid-2018 at the park’s southeast corner. The other concessions—a kiosk serving smoked chicken, wine, and beer; and a former Upper Kirby District double-decker bus that will anchor a beer garden—are expected to open later this year.
Despite ample opportunities for visitors to participate in games and other activities, the planned programming will face its biggest challenge from around June to September, when the notorious Houston heat and humidity ratchet up. While water features will offer respite, Overman says, so too will a canopy of towering old oak branches shielding a roughly 14-foot (4.3 m) overlook atop a gradually ascending boardwalk.
“It’s very cool,” he adds. “And when the weather gets warmer, I think it will be cool in the temperature sense, too. Or I should say, less steamy.”