The term "creative placemaking" may not have made its way into your everyday vocabulary, but it's happening in a very active way in Houston's Third Ward. Specifically, that place is the Park at Palm Center, and helping to make it more creative is a grant to the neighborhood's University of Houston from the National Endowment for the Arts under the auspices of the "Our Town" initiative.
UH was one of only 51 recipients nationwide of the Our Town grant, receiving $100,000 to support a series of public art installations, new media initiatives and cultural activities at the Park at Palm Center at 5400 Griggs Rd.
"The NEA's really trying to do something remarkable," says UH research professor Carroll Parrott Blue, who applied to the program on behalf of the university's Third Ward Arts Initiative. That initiative won the hearts of the NEA thanks to its New Media Technology for Public Spaces committee, which draws upon 20 design professionals, educators and local residents. UH president Renu Khator, Mayor Annise Parker and Judge Zinetta A. Burney were also crucial teammates in the application, said Blue.
Once an abandoned lot, the Park at Palm Center is currently a simple urban park surrounded by low-income housing. The Our Town grant will sponsor new features, including a fruit orchard, walking trail, barbecue area, splash park, playground, vegetable garden and public gathering space with a pavilion for local events and productions. The park's second phase is being designed by landscape architecture firm Asakura Robinson, the masterminds behind the grounds of the Sakowitz Apartments and Montrose's Mandell Park.
Then, there's the promised "new media" element. That buzz phrase could be implemented in the form of interactive multimedia-based artworks, a wifi hotspot and learning stations where visitors may enrich their understanding of such topics as local history and nutrition.
"It will be a real lab of sorts," says Theola Petteway, executive director of the Old Spanish Trail/Almeda Corridors Redevelopment Authority Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ #7). "There's a digital divide in this area because a lot of people don't have access to computers. Hopefully this will get people more excited about the Internet, while also promoting exercise or getting involved in the urban garden," she explains.
Among the authority's other projects are the redesign of Emancipation Park and renovations to thoroughfares Dowling and Holman streets with enhanced intersections, street lights, public art, pedestrian amenities and historical markers. A YMCA and elementary school on Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard recently opened to the public and a new library on Griggs Road is also on the map.
"What we're hoping is that this will generate other renovations in the area, attract new businesses and make it a more liveable place," says Blue. Part of that vision is the Palm Center stop on the future Southeast METRORail line. "If you begin to pay attention to a place and people come in, vitality will follow," she says.
Envision a neighborhood highlighted by new parks and a growing network of cultural institutions, all knit together by two new public transit corridors — that's what the future holds for the ever-vibrant Third Ward.
Completion for the second phase of the Park at Palm Center is slated for 2012. Want to have your say on the park's blueprint? Take this survey.