What happens when oil and water mix? In 2019, the city of Houston acquired the Gasmer Drive property with the intent to transform the land into a floodwater detention basin. The devastation left by Hurricane Harvey sparked a discussion about the need for flood mitigation throughout the city, and this 28.8-acre site was determined to be capable of accommodating 60 acre-feet of detention space. Formerly a Shell Oil Company testing facility, the Gasmer Drive property is located immediately adjacent to the Willow Waterhole Greenway. It was the site’s proximity to this valued public green space that inspired the city to pursue an alternative method of floodwater detention in the Gasmer Drive project. In 2021, Austin-based landscape designers Lionheart and local Houston firm Natalye Appel + Associates Architects (NA+AA) were selected to develop the Gasmer Drive Redevelopment Master Plan. They designed an intricate system of stormwater capture and drainage while integrating the existing industrial structures into their plan, which re-envisioned the property as both a detention site and recreational hub for the southwest region of Houston.
The original Shell facility was built in 1955 for testing drilling technologies and chemical cleanup methods. All industrial processes were conducted above ground or within closed structures. What remains from its past life are numerous structures scattered across the plot. Lionheart and NA+AA had to decide which of these built elements to remove and which to repurpose for park functions. Significant structures representing the history of the site were kept, including oil derricks, offshore platforms, and other machinery. The master plan seeks to honor the legacy of the oil industry in Houston in a sustainable, educational manner. “There’s hardly a soul in Houston that hasn’t been touched by the oil and gas industry,” says Lionheart founder Rebecca Leonard.
The Gasmer Drive site is located in Houston’s Westbury neighborhood but falls under the domain of the Brays Oaks Management District (BOMD). The surrounding communities encompass a high level of socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic diversity. The Gasmer Drive Project aims to address the varying needs of these communities by making the site highly accessible and designing for diverse programming. Nearby stakeholder organizations include the Willow Waterhole Greenspace Conservancy, Westbury High School, Westbury Little League, and the St. Catharine Convent. Stakeholder engagement has been a priority throughout the initial stages of the Gasmer Drive design process. In February 2022, a public open house was held on-site. Community members were given the chance to voice their opinions on the project by utilizing a series of interactive boards hung along the fence line of the property. For both the designers and the BOMD, serving the community is the most important function of the project.
The Gasmer Drive Redevelopment Master Plan drew inspiration from a variety of case study projects: Pearl in San Antonio; SteelStacks in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; Cook Park in Atlanta; and Water Square Benthemplein in the Netherlands. Each project contains an element of industrial preservation or flexible detention space. The final detention framework at Gasmer Drive was also inspired by Dutch dikes, where shaded walkways provide efficient access to different areas. A pattern reminiscent of the work of artist Piet Mondrian emerged as part of the initial concept for these rectilinear walkways, creating “rooms” with different programmatic and detention functions. Inspiration was also taken from the curvilinear forms of interactions between oil and water — mixing the materials of the site’s past and future — and from the existing pathways at Willow Waterhole.
The final Gasmer Drive Redevelopment Master Plan contains 26 programmed spaces and 13 structures. It is organized into four quadrants, each with a specific programmatic focus that meets one of the project’s goals: community, culture, ecology, and industry. There are multiple levels of circulation, designed with diverse user groups in mind. Key destinations and points of interest for administration workers, concert-goers, children, and nature walkers are all connected by a combination of circulation systems. Taking a cue from SteelStacks, the Gasmer Drive project includes a 2,560-ft elevated walkway linking iconic industrial structures together for pedestrian observation. Interpretive materials will explain the significance of this machinery, which includes a molten salt test loop, caisson pump test facility, oil derrick, and tank farm.
The proposed detention system provides 75.5 acre-feet of water storage: 60 acre-feet required by the city and approximately 15 additional acre-feet to compensate for the project’s disruption of the site. There are several types of detention in place, from 2-foot-deep rain gardens to 10-foot detention areas. Some spaces, like the 4-foot wet ponds, always have at least some water in them, but most areas are designed to drain quickly for a return to programmatic functionality. For example, the “flex lawn” floods up to 4 feet during a storm but, when dry, acts as a parking area, lawn, and event space. A mixture of plantings and accessible spaces combine to form a multitiered detention system that is maximized for both water storage and human use.
Each of the programmed spaces and structures in the master plan was developed to connect the community with the industrial and natural aspects of the site. An offshore platform has been re-imagined as an outdoor cafe space where visitors can order from a transformed modular container and enjoy views of the waterway. A community center, featuring both a plaza and live oak court space, will be created by updating the existing midcentury modern administration building. A large workshop building will become a flexible performance center structured for indoor-outdoor shows. This space will be the new permanent residence of the Brays Oaks theater group, drawing the existing community into the site. The property also contains several long, narrow testing buildings. These structures are intended to become the framework for temporary art installations that celebrate the relationship between culture and industry represented throughout the park.
The Gasmer Drive Redevelopment Master Plan includes a Levitt Pavilion, designed by Houston architecture firm Studio RED. The Levitt Foundation had originally pledged the project to Willow Waterhole in 2012, but the city’s acquisition of the Gasmer Drive land in 2019 resulted in a relocation of the planned pavilion. The pavilion space will cover approximately two acres, housing a stage, a plaza, a hospitality pavilion, and an elevated walk. The Levitt Pavilion will not be oriented against the site’s industrial backdrop but rather backed by a formation of bird-friendly wind turbines. Leonard explains that the designers see the site as “not just interpreting the energy past, but also the energy future.” The turbine equipment is experimental, continuing the legacy of energy testing on the site.
The final Gasmer Drive Redevelopment Master Plan was presented in April 2022 and won an Honor Award from the Texas chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects this year, but the project is far from completion. Throughout the remainder of the design and construction processes, Lionheart, NA+AA, and the BOMD hope to continue to host events that engage with the community. “The whole community needs to have a place in the Gasmer Drive project,” says Natalye Appel, FAIA. Balancing civic programming with infrastructural demands presents many challenges, but serving the needs of the community will remain the project’s highest priority.
Abigail Thomas is a recent graduate of the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture.