Levy Park transformation gives Upper Kirby new green space
By Molly Glentzer
Levy Park was once a magnet for teens serious about baseball. The Carl Young All-Star team, which won the national Pony League Championship in 1962, played there.
That was "back when the world was level," as Buddy Bailey puts it - before the Southwest Freeway split up the neighborhood, obliterating the footpath he and his pals used to take so they could shag fly balls at Coca-Cola's Little League park, and before office buildings and apartment complexes sprang up along Richmond Avenue.
The development meant that, for decades, the 5.5-acre park between Eastside and Wakeforest streets was so hidden you could drive within a few hundred feet and never know it was there.
Now the Upper Kirby Redevelopment Authority is giving Levy Park a $15 million makeover, aiming to create Houston's next signature outdoor destination, an urban showplace as dynamic as downtown's Discovery Green. Parts of it could be open by late October.
Like Houston's other revitalized green spaces, Levy Park would still be sitting idle without tax increment reinvestment zone (TIRZ) funds, a public-private partnership and a nonprofit conservancy.
But this partnership is different. Levy Park will be supported mostly by funds from a 99-year ground lease on adjacent mixed-use commercial development.
While the city owns the park, the authority owns the surrounding acreage where Midway Companies has nearly completed the first phase of its Kirby Grove development: Avenue Grove, a 270-unit luxury midrise apartment building, hugs the park's southwest corner, while the 15-story One Grove Street office building anchors the northeast corner, with ground-level restaurant space facing the park.
Bailey, the redevelopment authority's chairman, suggested the ground-lease partnership to provide a source of revenue and keep aesthetic control. The authority negotiated with several developers before signing with Midway, the creator of West Houston's highly successful CityCentre.
"Everybody loves CityCentre," said Jamie Brewster, the Upper Kirby District president.
She anticipates that the ground leases, private event rentals and sponsorships at the park will generate about $900,000 the first year for staffing, operations and maintenance - a model she believes could be applied to spur improvements at other underutilized parks.
The unconventional partnership doesn't surprise Adrian Benepe, director of city parks for the national group the Trust for Public Land.
"Houston has become a laboratory of interesting solutions for park building, financing and management," he said. "This specific model is unprecedented, but it has cousins around the country."
In New York, for example, 97-year ground leases for major commercial developments are funding the Brooklyn Bridge Park's $16 million annual budget.
The land for Levy Park was deeded to the city in 1941 by Leon Levy, who was from a pioneering family of Houston merchants.
Levy specified in his will only that the tract should become a park, and he left $5,000 for improvements. In addition to the ball field, the city built a swimming pool there.
The Pony League activity eventually gave way to softball games, but by the mid-1990s, vagrants were living under the bleachers. The Upper Kirby District adopted the park in the early 2000s, upgrading it with paths, picnic tables, a dog park and a nice community garden.
Sensing even greater potential, Brewster commissioned two feasibility studies but didn't get much encouragement. Experts told her the park wouldn't succeed unless it was surrounded by more dense development.
The district had bought one building next to the park, at the corner of Eastside and Richmond, in 1995. Brewster kept going, cajoling other property owners and waiting out those who said they'd never sell. Then came a land swap with the city to increase the size of the park slightly and make it a clean rectangle.
The district hired the Office of James Burnett to re-imagine the landscape. A leading firm with Houston roots, Burnett's company is nationally known for such high-profile projects as Dallas' Klyde Warren Park, converted from a freeway overpass; Oklahoma City's new Myriad Botanical Gardens; and Chicago's Park at Lakeshore East.
After a few more years' of community input, planning, permitting, utility work and weather delays, the new design is finally taking shape.
Levy Park's most prominent feature will be a curvy, concrete pavilion large enough to accommodate a symphony production. Designed by Houston architect Natalye Appel, the pavilion will also house restrooms and the Levy Park Conservancy offices. The wooden substructure is nearly finished above the still-rough ground where shaded paths and gardens will surround two oval lawns.
Appel also designed an elevated boardwalk that arrived last week, in pieces, to be assembled. It will wind like a ribbon through a canopy of old live oaks, part of a one-of-a-kind children's play area that will also have an environmentally friendly water feature.
"It's not play equipment out of a catalog," said Burnett principal Chip Trageser, who has managed the Levy Park project.
A dog park is under construction near the apartment building. A 2,500-square-foot restaurant will be built where the contractors' trailer now sits, near a community garden and a space for the Urban Harvest Farmer's Market. The district's de-commissioned double-decker bus is being reborn as a kiosk for coffee and snacks.
The landscape architects enlisted Biederman Redevelopment Ventures, known for reviving New York's Bryant Park, to help define the amenities and programming, and to ensure Levy Park still feels like a park.
"We were afraid we might overcook it and make it too Disneyesque," said Burnett. "A lot of people like to go to parks just to decompress and walk in nature."
The parking game
Levy Park Conservancy's first executive director, Doug Overman, said he plans to emphasize educational and community programs for visitors from across the city, not just the affluent Upper Kirby District.
"Live entertainment will probably be the number one draw, but there will be activities every day. Things that allow for day-to-day energy can be pretty simple - free ping-pong table rentals and chess," he said. "We're going to try a lot of things. It will probably be a year before we understand who's coming and what they want to do."
Parking is likely to be his first tough issue. To improve traffic flow, two new streets will cross the park east to west, and curbside parking is being added along Eastside and Wakeforest streets.
The park also has 300 weekday spaces inside the One Grove Street garage, and during busy nights and weekends, visitors will have access to 900 garage parking slots.
Parking won't be free, but Brewster said she plans to keep it affordable - in the $2-$3 an hour range.
Burnett's firm is also designing a future "gateway" that will extend the park's lighting and paving motifs northward along Eastside, with 12-foot sidewalks all the way to Westheimer Street - making it safer for Metro bus riders to come from that route, as well as Richmond Avenue.
Burnett believes Levy Park will be a game-changer - a win-win for the district, the developer and the public. But whether Midway can score a home run during a slump cycle in Houston's oil economy remains to be seen.
CEO Jonathan Brinsden might settle for a triple. He said One Grove Street's office and retail space is 65 percent leased, with proposals that could bring the building's occupancy to 85 percent. The upscale Indian restaurant Kiran's, which will face Richmond, signed on early. Brinsden wants a half-dozen more casual restaurants in the spaces beside the park.
He expects to begin leasing apartments in September.
He hasn't decided what to do yet with another, vacant acre Midway has leased beside One Grove Street.
"It's been difficult to communicate what a great park it's going to be. At this point we just want to make sure the first two projects are successful and completed," Brinsden said.
So, what happens if Midway goes under or sells out?
The lease is transferable, and the Kirby Grove development is a joint venture separate from Midway's other business, Brinsden said. "It's unlikely we'd own it in 99 years."
Brewster said she isn't ready to go there. "That's too far in the future for me to worry about now."