Houston’s New Park: Discovery Green
Originally published in Urban Land, October 2008
Discovery Green, a $122 million, 12-acre (4.9 ha) park with a lake, a restaurant, and a cafe located amid commercial and residential towers in downtown Houston, is the product of efforts by civic leaders who envisioned a new kind of urban park – one that would draw together the city’s diverse, cosmopolitan population.
The park, which occupies the equivalent of eight city blocks on the east side of downtown, is located across the street from the George R. Brown Convention Center, a block from the Toyota Center sports and entertainment arena where the Houston Rockets play, and two blocks from Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros. Previously dominated by parking lots that remained empty except for periodic surges during events at the three large venues, the area lacked continuous everyday activity.
Houston Mayor Bill White and a group of civic leaders initiated a public/private partnership to secure the site for a downtown park in mid-2004. The city agreed to contribute 6.4 acres (2.6 ha) of land and $7.9 million toward the acquisition of an additional 5.4 acres (2.2 ha) for $24 million. The city council later approved $21.5 million for construction of a 670-car garage under the park to serve the convention center. The city deeded the land to the Houston Downtown Park Corporation, a public government corporation, which entered into agreements with the Discovery Green Conservancy, a private nonprofit formed by initial donors to the project, to develop and operate the park. The conservancy then raised more than $54 million in private funds to supplement the city’s contributions of land. Gifts from four Houston philanthropic giants-the Brown Foundation, the Wortham Foundation, the Houston Endowment, and the Kinder Foundation – led the fund raising effort, which eventually included hundreds of donors.
The conservancy board invited representatives from cities across the country to make presentations in Houston on what makes a downtown park successful and active. Project for Public Spaces, an urban and public space planning nonprofit organization based in New York City, helped orchestrate a series of public workshops and focus groups that contributed to the creation of a detailed program of activities and spaces.
In spring 2005, the conservancy conducted an international search for designers, eventually selecting a team led by the San Francisco landscape architecture and planning firm
Hargreaves Associates and including the Houston office of the architecture firm PageSoutherlandPage and local landscape architect Lauren Griffith. In addition, artists Margo Sawyer of Elgin, Texas, and Doug Hollis of San Francisco were on the team to identify art projects as part of the site plan and to produce commissioned works. A team of local and international engineers and consultants was added as site planning and design progressed.
The conservancy board worked closely with the team over a 14-month design and documentation period. In addition, the public participation process continued with workshops to solicit input, refine the program, and generate a constituency for the park’s future. “A civic project of this magnitude is hard work, and it requires the passion and commitment of so many people to succeed,” notes Nancy Kinder, former chair of the conservancy board.
The design of the park emphasizes connectivity to the city surrounding it. A north-south promenade replaced a street that had bisected the site and creates linkages to the ballpark to the north and the arena to the south. The major activities of the site are clustered along this promenade. An east-west path, shaded by the boughs of a double row of live oak trees already at the site, crosses the spine and connects the downtown core to the convention center.
Though the conservancy board members wanted a range of activities and programs, they also wanted the park to provide areas for respite. The park accommodates a wide range of activities while still providing the experience of a green oasis. The major challenge presented to the design team was to keep the park green while providing the diverse programming desired.
The result is a place that celebrates Houston’s garden heritage, but also features a wide range of amenities, including:
- a five-star restaurant;
- a casual cafe;
- an interactive water feature;
- a one-acre (0.4-ha) lake suitable for sailing remote-controlled boats in summer or for ice skating in winter;
- an old world Italian bocce ball court and a down-home Texas horseshoe pitch, both set within gardens;
- a scenic jogging trail;
- a putting green;
- a pair of dog runs for large and small breeds; and
- a great lawn for casual sports and large gatherings.
“If there is a universal comment, it is surprise that there is so much to do in just 12 acres without the park feeling crowded,” notes Guy Hagstette, president of the conservancy. “The conservancy’s initial focus on activating the park, combined with the design team’s elegant site plan, really paid off.”
The conservancy also wanted the park to meet high standards of sustainable design and to integrate art. Designed to qualify for Gold certification under the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, the park incorporates 256 photovoltaic and solar hot water panels funded by a $1 million gift from Houston-based BP America. Building orientation and extensive shading devices also harness and deflect the sun’s light and heat.
Century-old trees on the site were protected and preserved and are supplemented by other large trees saved from destruction elsewhere. The design emphasizes native and climate-adapted plants and uses local materials wherever possible to reduce the energy consumption required to transport materials manufactured far away. Light-rail access and bike racks sprinkled through the park encourage alternatives to the dominant car culture of Houston.
Art and its integration into the overall design and activities of the park are a prevailing theme of Discovery Green. Sawyer’s Synchronicity of Color consists of multicolored panels covering the interior stairwells and the exterior walls of the underground parking structure on the south side of the park’s great lawn. Hollis’s water sculpture Mist Tree, nearthe children’s playground, creates an ironic blur between built and natural forms, and his carved limestone sculptures Listening Vessels, placed in a quiet garden, invite the same kind of participatory engagement as the rest of the park. French artist Jean Dubuffet’s grand, static Monument au Fantome, a $7 million donation from a downtown real estate investor, is also located in the park.
“From ‘day one, our board was focused on the long-term funding required to create and sustain a world-class urban park,” comments Kinder. “Without the money, the rest is just talk.”
Besides the initial fundraising effort, four continuing funding streams for the park were identified:
- Houston is committed by contract to provide $750,000 per year, adjusted for inflation, for maintenance and security – a sum estimated to be equivalent to the costs the city would have incurred if it managed the park itself.
- Rent from the park’s restaurant and cafe is projected to produce another $750,000 per year. Rent is calculated as a pure percentage of gross sales, which currently are exceeding expectations.
- The conservancy will hold a major gala every other year with a goal of supplying an average of $600,000 to $750,000 annually. The first gala, held in February, met the high end of that goal.
- Through programming sponsorships and rent from private events, the conservancy plans to raise another $650,000 to $750,000 each year.
Safety in the park has been a major operational concern. Security guards and field staff patrol the site 24 hours a day. Off-duty Houston police officers on bike patrol supplement permanent staff when the park is particularly active, and security cameras provide additional observation and monitoring. Security in the park is also provided by what Hagstette refers to as “crime prevention through environmental design”: the park’s spaces are visually continuous, light levels are high, and the buildings’ broad expanses of glass provide “eyes on the park.” “Many visitors have commented about how comfortable they are entering the park. The activity, site plan, and design have created an inherently safe environment,” he says.
White also credits this combination of a professional security presence and citizen self-patrol with creating the feeling of safety in the park. “The best deterrent to bad behavior is when you allow thousands of happy citizens to gather together in a place they consider their own. That is the key reason why Discovery Green feels so safe,” he says.
The response of Houston residents to Discovery Green has been enthusiastic. In its first four months of operation, more than 230,000 people visited the park, and attendance at individual events has surpassed 75,000. When asked about the response of his constituents to the park, White says, “Go look on any weekend and you will get your answer-hundreds if not thousands of people from all over the city enjoying the park, including families with their young children, people walking their dogs, couples listening to a concert, and natives bringing their out-of-town friends to the park to show off their city.”
The hoped-for revitalization of the east side of downtown is-’well underway. “From its announcement, Discovery Green has shaped new development on downtown’s east side with nearly $400 million of projects now under construction and another half billion dollars of development soon to follow,” says Bob Eury, president of Central Houston Inc., a private nonprofit corporation supported by area businesses and institutions. “Our vision of a high-density park district neighborhood is quickly becoming a reality.”
A 37-story multifamily residential tower, One Park Place, developed by the Houston-based Finger Companies, has topped out across the street from Discovery Green. The first new residential high-rise to be built in downtown Houston in decades, its promotional material makes it clear that its location on the park is a big selling point for moving downtown. Discovery Tower, a 30-story office building developed by Dallas-based Trammell Crow, is currently rising on the north side of the park, and its promotional release also cites the park as an amenity.
“The public really responds to high-quality, well-managed public space in an urban area,” Hagstette says. “Downtown sites offer unique opportunities to include activities that enhance life and generate revenues for ongoing operations.” Observes Brady Carruth, Kinder’s recent successor as chair of the Discovery Green Conservancy, the most important lesson from Discovery Green is “to show Houstonians what can be accomplished when local government and private interests come together with a vision to create a better city.”