Discovery Green exceeds hopes by leaps and bounds
By MIKE SNYDER Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Sunday, Aug. 17, 2008

It was hard to tell whether Nils Taft or his two children were having more fun at Discovery Green park Saturday morning.

Taft smiled broadly as he stood in knee-deep water in the Gateway Fountain watching his son William, 3, splash in the geysers. A few minutes later, Taft held Alex, 20 months, tightly in his arms as they tumbled, laughing, from the slide in the playground onto the sponge-like surface.

“It’s a nice park, very interactive,” Taft said as he stood dripping under an awning when a sudden shower sent people scampering for cover. It was worth the drive from his home in Spring, he said.

Houston’s only major downtown park has settled into a rhythm four months after its April 13 opening. The enormous crowds of the first few weeks, which taxed the 12-acre park’s capacity and necessitated hiring more employees to watch the swarms of kids, have subsided to consistently high but manageable levels, park officials said.

Employees estimate that almost a quarter-million people visited the park between opening day and June 30, including more than 75,000 who attended concerts and other special events. The estimates were made by comparing the size of crowds with the police department’s estimate of 30,000 people who went to the park on opening day, said Susanne Theis, programming director.

Much is riding on the success of the $122 million park. It’s the cornerstone of a revitalization of east downtown and the beneficiary of $41 million in public funds and an annual $750,000 city operating subsidy.

Some glitches have cropped up, such as leaks in the underground parking garage and a few claims from parents who wanted the park to pay for treatment of scrapes or cuts their children sustained in the fountain.

But the major concerns expressed by skeptics prior to its opening — that hordes of homeless people would trash the place, that no one from the suburbs would visit, that interest would evaporate after the opening-day buzz faded — haven’t materialized.

The continuous activity in the park seems to have discouraged homeless people from gathering in large numbers, though a few show up from time to time, said Guy Hagstette, Discovery Green’s director.

Park employees have spoken to visitors from The Woodlands, Sugar Land and other locations throughout Houston and its suburbs. After the 25-mile drive from Spring on Saturday morning, Taft said he easily found a metered parking spot.

People who live and work closer in are enamored of the park as well. Kathleen Hayes, who works at Merrill Lynch in a nearby office building, said she can’t wait to move into the apartment overlooking the park that she and her husband have pre-leased.

“I think it’s the crown jewel of Houston,” said Hayes, who expects to move into the One Park Place tower next March.

New development projects near the park are proceeding, with One Park Place and an office building called Discovery Tower under construction. A planned Embassy Suites hotel nearby has been stalled because an ongoing credit crunch has forced the developer to look for new financing.

Business at The Grove, an upscale restaurant in the park, has exceeded expectations since it opened in January, said Lonnie Schiller of Schiller Del Grande. The company operates the Grove and the Lake House, a casual restaurant also in Discovery Green.

The Lake House, Schiller said, tends to be busy when the park is busy, but isn’t yet attracting much lunch business from office workers. “People downtown haven’t quite figured it out,” Schiller said.

Discovery Green also has been an important asset for the George R. Brown Convention Center, Hagstette said.

Conventioneers frequently visit the park, Hagstette said, walking over for lunch or just to relax on a bench and watch the kids play. One convention group, the American Wind Power Association, booked Discovery Green for a private concert with singer Lyle Lovett that drew several thousand guests, Hagstette said.

Since planning for Discovery Green began in 2004, a primary goal has been to keep the park filled with people by offering a diverse range of programs and activities.

That task has fallen to Theis, the programming director, whose choices have reflected the quirky sensibility that was evident in the 25 years she directed the Orange Show, a folk art center in southeast Houston that began in the 1950s as an homage to its creator’s favorite fruit.

A chance to improve their grandsons’ writing skills brought Bob and Sylvia Mulcahy to Discovery Green on Saturday. The boys, Cole McEldowney, 8, and his brother Brock, 6, spent more than an hour in a writing workshop offered every Saturday at the park by the nonprofit Writers in the Schools program.

The boys sat on a sofa with 7-year-old Kennedi Harris as instructors Kent Shaw, 37, and Jennifer Aguirre, 31, encouraged them to “free write” — a made-up story, an account of their day or whatever struck their fancy. The children clutched their pens and labored over the pages attached to clipboards they held on their laps.

Sylvia Mulcahy said the boys’ school will be using the Writers in the Schools program in the fall, and they wanted to give them a taste of it now. Cole and Brock enjoyed riding the Metro train downtown from their home near Rice University, she said, and were looking forward to some time on the playground after they finished writing. The writing workshops are part of the mix of culture, entertainment, education and sheer fun that Theis is trying to achieve in the park’s activities. Originality also is important, she said.

“They hired me because they wanted the park to have that kind of freshness,” Theis said.

One example, she said, was a June event called “Dock Dogs,” a competition for dogs jumping off a dock into a pool of water. More than 140 dogs competed.

“People want authenticity and passion — the idea that someone would travel from Arkansas with his dog because he’s so proud of the dog’s jumping ability,” Theis said.

The weekly green market at the park, she said, is a response to the same public yearning for authenticity: “You’re meeting the farmer who raised your cabbage.”

by Mike Snyder, Houston Chronicle

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