Discovery Green was envisioned by several committed Houston philanthropists, who saw the space as a once in a lifetime opportunity to create an urban park in the heart of downtown. In less than four years, the site that became Discovery Green was transformed from an undeveloped, concrete eyesore into a beautiful and vibrant destination adjacent to the George R. Brown Convention Center. Discovery Green exemplifies a successful public-private partnership between the City of Houston and Discovery Green Conservancy, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization, which operates the park and produces hundreds of free events each year.
The Discovery Green Site
The current site of Discovery Green was originally a high-end residential neighborhood in the late 19th century. However the space evolved over time, and eventually became the site of two large parking lots adjacent to the George R. Brown Convention Center. There was also a small strip of green space in between the parking lots, known as the Houston Center Gardens.
Creating Discovery Green
The City of Houston acquired a portion of the land in 2002, and when the rest of the property went up for sale, a group of philanthropists led by Maconda Brown O'Connor, of the Brown Foundation, and Nancy G. Kinder, of the Kinder Foundation, approached then Mayor Bill White with their idea of turning the space into an urban park. The Mayor agreed, and became a strong advocate of a public-private partnership between the City of Houston and new nonprofit organization, Houston Downtown Park Conservancy (later to become Discovery Green Conservancy). Several other philanthropic foundations joined the effort, including the Wortham Foundation and the Houston Endowment, Inc. The City of Houston purchased the remainder of the land in 2004 and created the framework for the park's construction and operations, including the role of the new organization, Discovery Green Conservancy. When the Houston City Council approved the contracts to provide funding and support to the park, it also mandated that the "public at large" be engaged in the design and development of the park. With the guidance of Project for Public Spaces, the Conservancy mounted an intensive public process, which included both large public meetings and smaller focus groups to solicit public feedback. This feedback became the basis for the park's programming. In addition, the Conservancy engaged Elmore Public Relations, a public relations firm, early in the redevelopment.
Hargreaves Associates, an internationally renowned landscape architecture firm based in San Francisco, oversaw the design effort. The lead designer, Mary Margaret Jones, grew up in Baytown before achieving international stature as a landscape architect. PageSoutherlandPage designed the park's architecture and Larry Speck, former dean of the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture, was their lead architect. Lauren Griffith Associates, an experienced local landscape architect, provided landscape and horticultural design services. Artists Margo Sawyer and Doug Hollis were integral members of the design team and produced three works of art for the park. A large team of local and international engineers and specialists supported the core design team.
Present and Future Impact of Discovery Green
The total cost to acquire the land that became Discovery Green was approximately $57 million, and the total cost to build and outfit Discovery Green was an estimated $125 million. However, beyond just driving convention activity, the park has become an anchor for $500 million in downtown development. Several significant projects have chosen locations on the east side of downtown largely due to the Discovery Green project:
One Park Place, a high-end residential tower with 346 units;
Hess Tower, an office development which sold for a record breaking $442.5 million, opened in June 2011; and
Embassy Suites Hotel, a 262-room Hilton Hotel, opened in February 2011.
Discovery Green has helped Houstonians re-conceive downtown as a destination for play as well as work. During the planning phase, attendance was projected at an ambitious 500,000 a year, which was actually achieved in the first six months. As a public park, Discovery Green plays an important role in the City: it has engendered a level of ownership by all residents in the downtown core and throughout the region, and instilled a renewed sense of civic pride in the city.
Ultimately, the most compelling part of Discovery Green's history is like the story of Houston itself. Many of the city's great institutions can be attributed to the partnership and shared vision among Houston's philanthropic community, its business leaders, its public officials, and Houstonians themselves.