Discovery Green, the 12-acre, $122 million park that opens April 13, represents Houston's changing self-image as its leaders embrace the green qualities that so often impress visitors arriving by air for the first time.
"It does symbolize a new direction for Houston's public investment and civic philanthropy," said Mayor Bill White, who kicked off the fundraising campaign for the park in October 2004.
Discovery Green will be the first major public park in downtown Houston.
Visitors can sprawl in the grass for a concert, race model boats or splash in an interactive fountain. Runners can try out the jogging path while more sedate visitors can read a magazine in a small library or have a drink at The Grove restaurant.
Another concern often expressed about downtown parks is that they're likely to attract homeless people. Root Memorial Square, a small city park just south of Discovery Green, was the site of homeless encampments for years.
Experts on designing urban parks say the best way to prevent this is to keep them filled with people and activity.
Moreover, the public and philanthropic investment in Discovery Green can be justified only if the park attracts many people from throughout the Houston area, said Phil Myrick, a vice president of the Project for Public Spaces, a New York nonprofit that participated in early planning for the park.
Too often, Myrick said, "money gets poured into a place that very few people end up enjoying and spending time in."
Because Discovery Green is in a "challenging location," Myrick said, it will have to offer compelling activities to attract visitors from far-flung neighborhoods.
"Consider your average person on a Saturday or Sunday. Are they really going to pack up the kids and head downtown, or stay closer to home?" Myrick asked. "If downtown is the only audience (for the park), it will be a terrible waste."
Guy Hagstette, the park's director, said he's keenly aware of this challenge. Planners have worked hard, he said, to develop attractions and activities that appeal to all kinds of people. Almost all of the activities, with the exception of model boats and parking in the underground garage, will be free.
People who enjoy trendy games can play bocce, an Italian sport similar to lawn-bowling, while more traditional Texans can pitch horseshoes. Part of the model boat pool will be frozen during winter months for ice skating. Children can frolic in a "mist tree" that also serves as a piece of public art and a place for joggers to cool off.
The Houston Public Library will offer indoor and outdoor reading rooms and plans to provide free WiFi service throughout the park.
Since most of the new development surrounding the park is likely to serve an affluent market, Hagstette said, he has tried to ensure that Discovery Green's attractions serve diverse communities.
The park plans to host a health fair on Juneteenth and an Asian festival. A farmer's market will serve a demand for locally produced food. On weekends, families can visit the park, put their pets in one of two dog runs and watch their kids play on the playground while they discard their newspapers and cans into recycling bins.
I think it all sounds pretty cool, and I'm really glad to see there's a stage for outdoor music performances as well. Maybe someone will resurrect the idea of Party on the Plaza, which has been sorely missed. Having this park right in front of the George R. Brown Convention Center will be a heck of a nice advertisement for the rest of Houston, too.
And as promised, the park has spawned a lot of new development.
The streets surrounding Discovery Green, the new 12-acre downtown park, hum with activity as its April 13 opening approaches. A luxury high-rise apartment building and office tower are rising on two sides of the park, while a planned hotel and other nearby projects hope to benefit from it.
Brokers, developers and analysts say the park is attracting new development that promises to shift downtown's center of gravity to the long-dormant area east of Main Street.
The flurry of projects shows Mayor Bill White was correct when he predicted in 2004 that a high-quality park next to the George R. Brown Convention Center would create an "explosion of growth" on its periphery, said broker Dave Cook of Cushman & Wakefield.
"Everyone now feels that they want to be on the park," said Cook, who's been involved in a number of land deals in the area.
Some of this growth is a result of Houston's strong economy, a growing convention business and demand for downtown office space, real estate professionals say.
But Discovery Green, they say, is accelerating and intensifying this trend.
"I don't think the park is the only draw," said Ralph Howard, chief executive of Situs Cos., a real estate consulting firm based in Houston. "But it's becoming a new, natural center for the central business district."
The lure of urban parks is evident in views from balconies jutting out from One Park Place, the 37-story luxury apartment tower that developer Marvy Finger is building on Discovery Green's western edge.
The prospect of living near the park is so appealing, Finger said, that he's already leased about 60 of his 346 units, even though the project won't open for a year and he hasn't started marketing. The units will lease for $1,500 to $4,500 monthly, said Deborah Hartman, a publicist for the project.
Finger was the first developer to plunge into the market around Discovery Green. It was a crucial move for those who followed, said Cook, the broker.
"Finger's acquisition was the critical site and the critical development," Cook said.