Private-Public Deal Could Enliven Park

Houston Chronicle

By Erin Mulvaney

A local developer known for such high-profile projects as City Centre and downtown’s GreenStreet is betting that a multimillion-dollar makeover of a small urban park will make its latest commercial endeavor more valuable.

The local redevelopment authority, meanwhile, is hoping proceeds from the project will sustain the 62-year-old park financially while adding a critical mass of people who will make the park more viable.

And both sides hail the improvements at Levy Park, an underused pocket of green in the shadow of the Southwest Freeway, as the latest example of the private and public sectors working together to protect and preserve green space while in pursuit of profit.

Houston-based Midway has signed a 99-year lease for two parcels around Levy Park in the Upper Kirby area, a residential-commercial area that is rapidly becoming more dense. The development, to be called Kirby Grove, will include a 270-unit, midrise residential tower with outdoor deck space and a parking garage and a nearly 250,000-square-foot building for Class A office space with ground-floor retail and restaurants with outdoor patios.

Both buildings will face the 5.6-acre park in an effort to encourage foot traffic throughout. The Upper Kirby Redevelopment Authority, the area’s tax reinvestment zone and owner of the park and adjacent property, will invest $8 million to $10 million to add landscaping, a performance pavilion and water features at the park while expanding its community garden and dog park.

Upper Kirby and Midway each expect to benefit financially, with the lease providing consistent revenue to support Levy Park and the improvements offering an attractive selling point to potential Kirby Grove clients.

Travis Younkin, deputy director of the Upper Kirby authority, said he hopes the model “can set a precedent and be replicated elsewhere.”

Ann Taylor, executive director of the Urban Land Institute in Houston, said other developers have successfully used parkland to make their projects more desirable. She cited Discovery Green and Market Square Park in downtown, Market Street in The Woodlands and Midway’s own City Centre project on the west side of Houston as prime examples.

“Research shows that there is a return on investment in those types of urban green spaces,” she said. “It provides a catalyst and becomes an important amenity.”

Taylor, whose group advocates for green space in Houston, said rapidly developing neighborhoods like Upper Kirby stand to benefit especially from improved park space. She lives in the area and said she would like to have a place to bring her grandson to play.

The park, established in 1952 between Richmond and the Southwest Freeway, a few blocks west of Kirby Drive, has had various improvements

— a dilapidated pool was removed, a community garden was added, a place for dogs to run free was fenced off — and it’s been the subject of exhaustive studies funded by the redevelopment authority aimed at improving it.

But Younkin said it remains largely hidden.

The authority plans to spend $8 million to upgrade Levy Park and wants to raise an additional $2 million in private donations. Younkin said the park could use the additional exposure a project like Kirby Grove would provide.

“We only have so much green space in the district,” he said. “And we wanted to make sure we take advantage of it.”

Shon Link, Midway’s executive vice president, agreed that the residential and office traffic will increase the number of park visitors. “It’s a great example of how a private developer and the city can work together to create a win-win,” he said.

Construction on both the park renovation and Kirby Grove will begin in August and is projected to be completed by the following spring or summer.