HOUSTON – (Realty News Report) – Two years ago, few people patronized Levy Park, a nearly six-acre oasis located on a dead end street in Houston’s Upper Kirby District . Now, thanks to a public-private partnership rejuvenation, Levy Park hosts some 7,000 individuals a week. The transformation has received national attention and Levy Park is now one of five finalists for the 2018 Urban Land Institute’s Open Space Award, an international honor. Houston-based Midway was a major catalyst in the redevelopment. To find out more about how the partnership worked — and how it might be used elsewhere in the city — Realty News Report talked with Jonathan H. Brinsden, Chief Executive Officer of Midway.
Realty News Report: Levy Park was a forgotten and forlorn park in the Upper Kirby area and it’s now a finalist for an international ULI award. Tell us about working with the Upper Kirby Redevelopment Authority on this project.
Jonathan Brinsden: Jamie Brewster, now the retired President of the Upper Kirby District, had been to Midway’s Kings Harbor mixed-use development in Kingwood and CITYCENTRE many times. She saw active green spaces filled with people in both of those developments. That wasn’t happening with Levy Park, and she called one day just looking for ideas. That started a conversation. At the time, it was not an opportunity to pursue, it was just sharing experience and ideas. But, my gut feeling was that the Upper Kirby area, with its critical mass of established neighborhoods and mature office development needed more green spaces. The area lacked a signature public gathering place to create the “there” there.
Realty News Report: Midway has a long-term commitment to provide funds for Levy Park, which has a lot of programming and activities. Can you explain what Midway is doing?
Jonathan Brinsden: Midway signed a long-term ground lease for property that we developed as an office and retail project, Kirby Grove Office, with frontage on Richmond Avenue, and multifamily development, Avenue Grove, on the southern edge of the park. These two new properties generate a steady stream of people, restaurants and services, as well as revenue—populating a park is as important to its success as funding it. The buildings give the park an urban edge, buffering it from the busy streets to the north and south. Although our ground lease provides a steady revenue stream that helps pay for park maintenance, the Levy Park Conservancy plays a critical role. The Conservancy is an affiliate of the Upper Kirby Foundation, which generates funds to support a full calendar of health, wellness and cultural programming that is free to the public.
Realty News Report: Why do you think Levy Park is so highly regarded by the ULI judges? What makes this park special?
Jonathan Brinsden: Levy Park and Kirby Grove check all the boxes for the Urban Land Institute. It is a public + private + philanthropic partnership (one better than a P3, it’s a P4!) As an educational and research institute, ULI’s purpose is to study these innovative partnerships, identify best practices and transfer knowledge to ULI members and the wider real estate industry. If for no other reason than the world-class design of Levy Park, the aesthetics alone would be award-worthy, but ULI also considers how the private development has performed and the surrounding community has been impacted by the park.
Realty News Report: Parks, such as Discovery Green in downtown, seem to be getting more emphasis as transformative places that have benefits beyond their boundaries. What’s behind the new thinking on parks and place-making?
Jonathan Brinsden: This is not just happening in Houston, but in other places where people are moving in and rediscovering the urban core of the city. Any place where people are living in denser, mixed-use developments, the parks have become the “living room” of their city. There is also something very important about the public realm, where people from all walks of life, cultures, ages and incomes can peacefully enjoy a beautiful public area together. These places help break down barriers between people.
Realty News Report: What’s the key to making public/private projects, such as Levy Park, work effectively?
Jonathan Brinsden: Some of the important keys are: patience on both sides; transparency; taking a long-term approach to collaboration; and approaching the relationship as exactly that, a relationship, not just a transaction. Both sides need to be willing to learn and to educate the other party. For this type of partnership to be sustainable, there needs to be mutual respect for each partner’s unique requirements, as well as a clear understanding of where interests are aligned and overlapping.
Realty News Report: Midway has developed a pair of private-sector bookends on the edge of Levy Park: the 16-story Kirby Grove office building and the Avenue Grove multifamily development. How are those projects performing?
Jonathan Brinsden: We are all aware of the challenges that faced anyone delivering Class A office space and upscale apartments in the Houston market recently. But, even though the market was offering more concessions and working through vacancy, Kirby Grove Office increased absorption without aggressive concessions. When the Amsterdam-based co-working company SPACES entered the Houston market, they chose Kirby Grove for their first location because it overlooks Levy Park, and that appeals to the creative, collaborative workforce. Levy Park has been the major attraction for office and retail tenants as well as apartment residents at Avenue Grove, and we are not having to compete solely on the basis of price. Clearly, Levy Park is the differentiator.
Realty News Report: The philanthropic sector of Houston has taken the lead on many of the Park initiatives in the City – do you think there should be a conscious effort to have more quality development integrate into the public realm?
Jonathan Brinsden: Houston is blessed to have some of the most innovative and results-oriented philanthropists anywhere in the world. They take a strategic approach to investing in green space and trail improvements that transform neglected and underperforming areas. The public sector also is looking for partnerships as a way to accomplish more with their limited resources. That is why effective public + private partnerships make so much sense—together we can generate economic opportunity and benefit public health and safety with smart investments in green infrastructure, trails, parks and open spaces.