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Discovery Green, Houston, Texas, United States 
Wednesday 29 Dec 2010
 
A breath of fresh air 
 
Chris Cooper 
 
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Major urban park revitalizes downtown Houston and boosts local economy 

The revitalization of America's urban cores and swift increase in residential populations has intensified and diversified programmatic demands on urban parks. Discovery Green, which opened in April 2008, embraces this trend by overlaying an extremely high density of programming in creative ways that allow the park to perform as a living fabric of activities and experiences, as diverse as Houston's population.

The twelve-acre park has transformed the perception and experience of downtown while seeding the revitalization of the surrounding urban district. Located in an area of downtown Houston once dominated by large public facilities (Toyota Center, Minute Maid Park and the George R. Brown Convention Center) and their often-empty parking lots, Discovery Green is the result of a partnership between the City of Houston and private philanthropists.

There were four goals for the creation of a major urban park: 1) create a world-class, urban park for Houstonians; 2) create an amenity for conventions and tourism; 3) help reshape the east side of downtown Houston and 4) involve Houstonians in the park's planning and design. After work began, other goals emerged for the park: to be an active, urban space; to truly welcome all people, especially families and children; to be a venue for small and mid-sized arts organizations, and to be an exemplar of sustainable building and operating practices.

Discovery Green is organized around the structure of two dynamically juxtaposed cross axes, inherent within the existing site. The Crawford Promenade, a previous north/south street vacated to consolidate park land, serves as the park's central activity spine and armature of all major park spaces. This linear plaza, shaded by large Mexican Sycamore trees and defined by iconic paving and lighting, supports farmers markets, art fairs and parades, while linking the central activity of the park to major sporting venues to the north and south.

The perpendicular Oak Allee celebrates a corridor of 100-year-old heritage oaks, re-creating an historic east-west connection across the site and linking the Convention Center with downtown retail and office towers. The park's architectural elements include two restaurants, a park administration building, underground parking for more than 600 vehicles and numerous site features such as a bandstand, a small children's performance space and shade structures of various sizes and configurations.

The three primary buildings on the site - the Lake House café, the park building and The Grove restaurant - parallel the live oaks and reinforce their linear character. Each building is composed of long, thin volumes that draw activity from the major north/south promenade deep into the park on either side.

The Grove restaurant at the south end of the promenade provides a strong, energizing visual presence for the park on Lamar Street - an important connector between the Convention Center and associated hotel to the east and the business core of downtown to the west. Its lower floor is dominated by a long, thin dining room that nestles under the boughs of the Oak Allee. Tall glass walls toward the trees and at each end open the room generously to the park, while a richly textured brick volume housing kitchen and service functions anchors the room on the street side.

The upper level of the restaurant is predominantly a shaded outdoor dining terrace accessed by broad staircases at the east and west ends. A planted green roof contributes to stormwater management and helps insulate the building. The administration building and the Lake House café flanking the promenade act as both gateway and landmark. The former becomes a strong edge to the interactive fountain on the west side of the promenade, and the café becomes a strong edge to the boat pond on the east side.

Both buildings have deep, shady porches that dominate their south faces. Carefully designed to create a shield from hot south and west sun, the porch roofs pitch up to the north to achieve balanced daylight for the outdoor spaces below as well as to induce air movement, drawing warm air up and out. The south-facing porch roofs of the administration building and the Lake House house 256 photovoltaic collectors that provide 8% of the power needed for the park.

Other Environmental/Sustainable Design Concepts: Discovery Green has achieved Gold LEED certification. It was extremely important that Discovery Green be specifically of Houston, and constructed with identity-defining (and sustainable) local materials. All materials were vetted for their durability and ease of maintenance in a very high-use environment.

Many of the local materials, like the brick, were also chosen for their economy of transportation. A reflective anodized aluminum was employed for roofs and trim in order to maximize heat reflection. As few duplicative layers of materials as possible were used. An explicit steel frame with metal decking became finish materials as well - an important resource conservation measure. Creating veneers was avoided wherever possible. Certified woods are utilized for soffits, gates, screens and decks.

In addition to using native and regionally appropriate plant materials throughout the park, a distinctive red-orange Gulf Coast brick is employed in a strongly horizontal coursing pattern to reflect the emphatic flatness of the clay geology of the region. The design focused on making landscape-oriented buildings that would blend seamlessly with the outdoor environment and would be respectful of natural forces and phenomena.

There is as much outdoor space in the buildings as indoor space. Park buildings are characterized by expansive glass faces on the north exposure, capturing natural lighting and creating contiguous indoor/outdoor relationships, while large shaded outdoor verandas on southern exposures reduce solar heat gain and encourage outdoor seating and gathering by providing shelter from Houston's characteristic hot sun and periodic downpours.

Social and Economic Impacts: from its conception, Discovery Green has had a significant impact on downtown Houston. Visitation to the park exceeded 1.7 million during its first two years of operation, far exceeding projections and expectations. The commitment of the City and major foundations to a civic space of such quality spoke loudly about the desire for continued quality redevelopment on the east side of downtown.

The park has already proven to be an extremely effective catalyst for redevelopment - an adjacent residential tower and office tower have recently been completed, and two additional hotels will soon occupy the remaining open blocks next to the park. Since its announcement, over $530 million of development has been directly influenced by the park, and another $640 million has been indirectly influenced.

The broader economic impact stems from the focus of significant media attention ranging from articles in national dailies to business publications, all with the theme that there is a socially sensitive, in-step with the times side of Houston that may not have been well perceived before. Trade show and convention guests at the George R. Brown Center since the park's opening have been greeted with a new impression of the city.

PageSoutherlandPage was the architect and MEP engineer for the park buildings; Hargreaves Associates was the park planner and lead landscape architect and Lauren Griffith Associates was the local landscape architect. Miner-Dederick Construction was general contractor for the park.

Social

Downtown is also benefitting from the large and broad constituency of users in the park who are also enjoying themselves in downtown Houston. It has become a rich melting pot for Houston’s very diverse population. The number of families who have been willing to add this downtown park to the list of destinations for their children has helped broaden and diversify downtown’s social and economic foundations. Houston’s large downtown has few areas of intense pedestrian activity. The park expands to the east side of downtown the footprint of places where there is the potential for social interaction and fairly constant pedestrian activity. Finally, the park has raised the expectations of the community about the quality of parks and public spaces in downtown and the region. The positive role major parks play in creating sustainable urban fabric has long been known, but the impressive scale and immediacy of revitalization, radiating outward from Discovery Green, shows the extent to which this new central park is shaping a new destiny for Houston, and transforming the social and urban experience of residents and visitors.

Economic

From its conception, Discovery Green has had a significant impact on downtown Houston. Visitation to the park exceeded 1.7 million during its first two years of operation, far exceeding projections and expectations. The commitment of the City and major foundations to a civic space of such quality spoke loudly about the desire for continued quality redevelopment on the east side of downtown. The park has already proven to be an extremely effective catalyst for redevelopment — an adjacent residential tower has recently been completed, an office tower is currently under construction, and two additional hotels will soon occupy the remaining open blocks next to the park. Since its announcement, over $530 million of development has been directly influenced by the park, and another $640 million has been indirectly influenced. More development is planned, depending on the economic climate. The broader economic impact stems from the focus of significant media attention ranging from articles in national dailies to business publications, all with the theme that there is a socially sensitive, in-step with the times side of Houston that may not have been well perceived before. Trade show and convention guests at the George R. Brown Center since the park’s opening have had been greeted with a new impression of the city.

Environmental

Discovery Green has achieved Gold LEED certification. All materials were vetted for their durability and ease of maintenance in a very high-use environment. Many of the local materials, like the brick, were also chosen for their economy of transportation. A reflective anodized aluminum was employed for roofs and trim in order to maximize heat reflection. As few duplicative layers of materials as possible were used. An explicit steel frame with metal decking became finish materials as well — an important resource conservation measure. Creating veneers was avoided wherever possible. Certified woods are utilized for soffits, gates, screens and decks. Generous glass walls, primarily oriented to the north provide soft indirect light to interior spaces. It was extremely important that Discovery Green be specifically of Houston, and constructed with identity-defining (and sustainable) local materials. In addition to using native and regionally appropriate plant materials throughout the park, a distinctive red-orange Gulf Coast brick is employed in a strongly horizontal coursing pattern to reflect the emphatic flatness of the clay geology of the region. The design focused on making landscape-oriented buildings that would blend seamlessly with the outdoor environment and would be respectful of natural forces and phenomena. There is as much outdoor space in the buildings as indoor space. Park buildings are characterized by expansive glass faces on the north exposure, capturing natural lighting and creating contiguous indoor/outdoor relationships, while large shaded outdoor verandas on southern exposures reduce solar heat gain and encourage outdoor seating and gathering by providing shelter from Houston’s characteristic hot sun and periodic downpours. Carefully designed to create a shield from hot south and west sun, the porch roofs pitch up to the north to achieve balanced daylight for the outdoor spaces below as well as to induce air movement, drawing warm air up and out. The south-facing porch roofs of the administration building and the Lake House support 256 photovoltaic collectors that provide 8% of the power needed for the park.

Key Facts

Status Completed
Value 0(m€)
Hargreaves Associates and Page
 
Vola
ECOWAN
 

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