A Big Idea Emerges for a Tiny Space

Ryan Holeywell | @RyanHoleywell| May 17, 2016

The empty site is located directly across from a light rail stop. Image via Google Street View.

The empty site is located directly across from a light-rail stop. Image via Google Street View.

In terms of municipal projects, it doesn’t get much smaller than the empty plot across the street from the METRO Houston’s Melbourne North Lindale station.

The spot is prime real estate: right next to transit, only about three miles from downtown, adjacent to one of the area’s most quickly developing neighborhoods.

But it’s so small — just 2,400 square feet — that the site poses a challenge to anyone who wants to develop it. Can anything truly transformational be built on such a small space?

A team of fellows who visited Houston last week as part of the Next City Vanguard 2016 conference thinks so. And the Kinder Institute for Urban Research will spend $10,000 to make their idea a reality.

Metro Red Line

The site, less than 2,400 square feet, is located just north of the 610 Loop. Image via Google Maps.

The site, less than 2,400 square feet, is located just north of the 610 Loop. Image via Google Maps.

As part of the Next City Vanguard 2016 conference, the Kinder Institute tasked the conference fellows who visited Houston to think of ways to revamp five underutilized pieces of land across the city.

The team that won the design competition, made of young urban leaders from across the country, wants to build a community space dubbed “Little Oasis” on the plot. It’s one of several pieces of land left over by the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County after finishing its recent northern light-rail extension. Those pieces of land previously held equipment and other components used in the construction of that project. While some pieces are big enough to be sold or transformed into parks, others are “too small or oddly shaped to be profitable or worth the trouble,” city councilmember Karla Cisneros told the Urban Edge.

“Little Oasis” would include a small park and a space for bike repairs in the chunk of land directly across from the light-rail stop.

Team members look at a map of north Houston.

Team members look at a map of north Houston.

The team envisions bike racks and a place where residents can perform bike maintenance, along with a shaded structure, lighting, park benches, landscaping and a community art installation.

Their ideas were based on conversations with Cisneros, the city councilmember who represents the area, as well as other stakeholders in the community, such as the North Lindale Civic Club.

“The ‘Little Oasis’ project holds enormous potential for a small plot of land,” said Kyle Shelton, program manager with the Kinder Institute, who will help oversee the Institute’s sponsorship of the project. “Given that a number of these surplus pockets of green exist along the light-rail lines, I hope this project can serve as a model and catalyst for other similar projects.”

Fifth Ward 

lyonespride

Other ideas emerged from the design competition too. In the Fifth Ward, at an empty site at the corner of Jensen Drive and Lyons Avenue, team members envision pop-up retail, a stage for performances and picnic tables for eating street food, given the lack of dining options in the once-vibrant area. The team wanted to take advantage of the tree canopy that currently exists at the corner to create a unique public space.

“It could transform back into some version of itself,” said Tre Borden, an artist who was part of the team that worked on the project.

The team believes it could clean up the site, hire staff to manage it and pursue some event programming for $10,000.

Southwest Middle and High School

swrendering

Team members proposed transforming an empty site near the Southwest Middle and High School into a soccer field, given the limited green space available at the education facility just steps away.

As it stands, the school’s students have just 2,400 square feet of green space for outdoor recreational activities. Their plan could increase that amount by 17 times. The fellows say they could overhaul the empty, grassy site at the corner of Hillcroft Avenue and Westpark Drive by spending $10,000 on fencing, landscaping, paint and a striping machine to create the field of play.

Rufus Cage Elementary

maker_space

At the empty, historic elementary school in the heart of Houston’s East End, fellows sought to develop an education center where young people could learn about the STEM fields as well as the arts. Given the site’s location — in between five area schools — and the need for job training opportunities, the team members believe the site presents a unique opportunity.

Team members also felt it was important to come up with a constructive use for the facility, given the critical role it once played in the community. “It’s very dear to the community,” said George Abbott, of the Knight Foundation, who was part of the team. “There are people in the East End who attended the school.”

Because $10,000 wouldn’t provide anywhere near enough funding for a complete overhaul of the building, the team proposed something of a pilot. They wanted to spend money on modifying a shipping container to be placed outside of the building, where a local makerspace could host classes.

Third Ward

ourpark

Team members were charged with overhauling “Our Park,” a green area near the SHAPE Community Center. The team proposed spending $10,000 to lead a community engagement process that would help determine what sort of changes local residents want to see in the area. By doing that, they argued, they could ultimately wind up with a plan that had buy-in from the whole neighborhood.

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