Several weeks ago, a fully recharged Levy Park opened, complete with food trucks, the obligatory ribbon-cutting, a mayor cameo, and live improvised graffiti by the street artist Gonzo. Attendees were permitted to park for free that day in the garage podium for the newly-built Kirby Grove office building. A tasteful backdrop, if a bit chunky compared to the nearby early Hines projects, Kirby Grove was developed by Midway Companies. Midway also leased the adjacent land for 99 years in an innovative partnership with the city and Upper Kirby Redevelopment Authority to lift Levy Park’s aspirations to heights rarely seen for public parks.
The original park, occupying a land parcel donated to the city of Houston by Leon Levy in 1952, lived quietly for decades as a neighborhood recreational destination, later hosting an unglamorous dog park. It is located beyond the evening shadows of Greenway Plaza’s glassy tower cluster and a few blocks west of Kirby Drive. The blocks around the park are dominated more by commercial office buildings than residential developments, though recent mid-rise luxury apartments have begun to sprout nearby.
Design of the newly minted park was led by The Office of James Burnett (OJB), a Houston-based design firm. The site plan breaks the 5.6-acre park into three distinct zones—essentially two open spaces divided by an amorphous play area in the center. They are stitched together with a light, sweeping pavilion designed by Natalye Appel Associates that features a playfully porous roofscape that mirrors the elegant horizontal reach of neighboring trees. Burton Construction was the contractor on the project and the Gunda Corporation provided project management support.
Several expansive live oaks in their mature state were painstakingly moved to locations within the park. Moving fully grown trees nearly always seems heavy-handed, but in this case the results are convincing. The placement of the trees effectively helps to break down the scale of the overall park while making the children's play area somehow open and inviting yet also safe and secluded. Above all, the tree placement may have found the perfect balance of shade and open sky, making Levy Park now one of Houston’s best outdoor public spaces. Some mathematician should study the Houston-specific harmonious ratio of light and shade found there and in places like Hermann Park, North Boulevard, and the Cullen Sculpture Garden.
Taking full advantage of the trees, the children’s area includes an accessible ramp serving no other purpose but than to take visitors literally into the tree canopy, 10 feet above the ground, not for a skyline view, but instead to simply occupy a nature-heavy realm rarely experienced in our lives. A bench or two along this platform would be nice.
Subsequent phases will bring a café and community garden to Levy Park. But even without all the planned pieces in place, the park produces a sense of true urban dwelling: public interaction, balanced density, memorable outdoor experience, architectural appreciation, and general sensory delight. Anyone reflecting on their visit to the park would have great difficulty criticizing the concept or design. Without question, Levy Park will be a remarkably popular destination for many years to come.
It is telling, though, that Houston has produced another gem of a park that is isolated within a forbidding infrastructure. The tree canopy in the park is now accessible to everyone but the park itself is not.
The most successful public spaces are those given the appropriate level of visibility and physical connection, whether by foot, rail, bus, or car, from any direction. Yet in the case of Levy Park, both are missing. The park is tucked away from view, dwarfed by the Kirby Grove building, which undermines its connection to its best walkability draw, Richmond Avenue, bringing visitors from Upper Kirby. Although there are sidewalks immediately surrounding the park, no sidewalk exists on either side of Eastside Street between the park and Richmond. Just one block south of the park, the Southwest Freeway, with a right-of-way as wide as the park itself, walls off West University’s upper reaches as if it were an international border crossing. Consider the Olive Garden restaurant, surrounded by a typical suburban parking lot, built within the same time period as the Levy Park facelift just on the other side of the freeway. Here we have Houston in a nutshell: a state-of-the-art destination public park next to a 19-lane freeway next to a chain restaurant, with no way to walk between them.
Making pedestrian connections to public spaces is not anything new, even across highways. Along I-10 east of Downtown, you will find dedicated pedestrian overpasses at regular intervals connecting the Fifth Ward to the Ship Channel neighborhoods. These came about as a result of community organizing and connections to public schools. More safe paths for pedestrians to get from one side of the Southwest Freeway to the other are long overdue.
The good news is that people are noticing these things. The single-occupant motor vehicle has dominated nearly every infrastructure improvement in Houston over the last half-century, but today’s constituency of city dwellers have different needs. Eastside Street is to go from having no sidewalks to a minimum of 1o-foot sidewalks on one side of the street with outdoor furniture, lighting, landscaping, and new street trees with construction expected in late summer. A bike plan for Houston includes bold initiatives such as creating a dedicated bike route along the ominous Westpark Tollway easement not far from Levy Park. Additional street improvements promise to connect Levy Park with Eastside Street toward the Farmer’s Market by providing pedestrian passage across Richmond. The plan for these connections passed. Now it needs to be funded.
Unfortunately, much of Houston lacks the redevelopment authorities that can piece together private and public money like Upper Kirby. And political gridlock is formidable: had a light rail line or bus rapid transit been built down Richmond from the Wheeler Transit Center to the Galleria, we would be celebrating the reopening of Levy Park as part of a grand transit-oriented transformation.
Big-league developers are making it look easy to create an urban gem, as in the case of Levy Park, but when it comes to the larger context, we scratch our heads. We need more groups like the Midway Companies and aggressive neighborhood advocates to take successes like this park and stretch their boundaries to be even more beneficial all across the city.
George Ristow is an architect living in the Heights with his wife and daughter. He moved to Houston from Philadelphia in 2013.