• The Alief community gathers at “the biggest front porch in Texas.” - photos by Albert Vecerka/Esto

The Alief Neighborhood Center & Park brings a resilient community hub to West Houston.

Project Alief Neighborhood Center & Park
Location Houston
Client City of Houston
Architect Page Southerland Page
Design Team John Smith, Peter Dreghorn, Jonas Risén, AIA
Landscape Architect SWA Group
Contractor Manhattan Construction
Structural Engineer Dally + Associates
MEP Engineer Collaborative Engineering Group
Civil Engineer Gradient Group
AV Consultant 4b Technology Group
Food Service Consultant Worrell Design Group
Pool Consultant Counsilman-Hunsaker
Envelope Consultant Zero/Six Consulting
Skatepark Consultant Action Sports Design
Photographer Albert Vecerka/Esto

In Houston, as well as other cities like it that are characterized by low density and extensive highway networks, the concept of third spaces takes on a unique dimension. The sprawling nature of the city — resulting from a lack of municipal regulation — presents residents with limited transportation options, a reality that is particularly challenging for households relying on public transportation. In response, diverse community programs are being collocated to create hybrid third spaces that transcend the traditional boundaries of public-private and work-home categories.

Conceived by the architects at Page Southerland Page and unveiled in January 2023, West Houston’s Alief Neighborhood Center & Park offers a compelling example of how these quintessential public services are being reimagined. Alief, like many neighborhoods in the Houston metro area, experienced significant development following World War II, attracting new residents from near and far, including refugees from neighboring states and other countries. The neighborhood was also once home to notable performers like Mo Amer and Lizzo. This diversity gave rise to a resilient and proud Alief community, marked by shared struggles and victories. Alief exemplifies how a community can redefine its identity and create public spaces that mirror its ethos. 

In 2014, Alief’s local governance embarked on discussions regarding the redevelopment of the community center, underscoring their dedication to creating a facility that reflects the diversity of residents within the Houston suburb. This project marked an important step in an ongoing 30-year endeavor to transform District F. The lead design architect at Page, Jonas Risén, AIA, recounts that communication was essential during the initial open house neighborhood meetings in order to overcome frustrations that the project would not address community needs.

Extensive outreach meetings during schematic design revealed latent community needs and desires. The project was not just about building a center; it also needed to reflect a new approach to urban design as well as cultural understanding. In fact, understanding how services were perceived by different cultures played a crucial role in the project. For example, as Natalia Beard, a principal at SWA Group and the lead landscape architect on the project, explains, different communities have unique ways of understanding what “public” entails, particularly in the context of privacy and gender segregation. Page principal Wendy Heger, AIA, also notes that as government-operated entities, public libraries can carry a negative stigma among some communities due to fears of being surveilled or publicly monitored. As a result, it was essential to communicate that the project’s services and facilities were designed to provide equal access to everyone. 

From an urban perspective, the Alief Neighborhood Center acts as a central hub, particularly in times of emergency. Houston’s vulnerability to natural disasters accelerated the development of third spaces as part of the city’s resiliency strategy. The center didn’t replace existing networks like neighborhood churches and parks; instead, it enhanced them. It has become a place where aid can be distributed, emphasizing the importance of preparation before emergencies strike and ensuring that the community would have a place for support in such situations.

The landscape architects at SWA Group took the helm in shaping the center into a resilient hub of community interaction. The facility offers a diverse array of recreational facilities, including a skatepark, sports courts, playgrounds, soccer fields, a neighborhood pool, and a rock-climbing wall. The design is purposeful, incorporating a planted seating area and courts for basketball, tennis, and soccer. To ensure acoustic separation, adult-focused sporting courts are thoughtfully distanced from gathering spaces and playscapes. 

The site is enveloped by trees that form a canopy between Bellaire Boulevard and the park areas. To address Houston’s flood vulnerability, the parkland has been intentionally shaped to manage floodwaters effectively with tree canopies and winding pathways that guide visitors through the site. Natalia Beard emphasized her team’s “desire to create a welcoming and lush park, departing from Houston’s characteristic never-ending horizon landscape.” Their approach embraced porosity, promoting a seamless connection between interior and exterior spaces. In line with the community-centric vision, SWA Group’s landscape design turned the site into a civic gathering place for the Alief community, with the goal of establishing a fresh, resilient development model for Houston in the post-Hurricane Harvey era. 

The 70,000-sf neighborhood center building sits atop a hill, concealing parking below; the site was once home to a community hall and open fields for public use. Elevated above the park’s tree canopy, the center’s library offers a scenic view of the outdoor facilities to the south. A central staircase is a focal point of the lobby, providing space for seating, circulation, and gathering. 

A notable feature of the center, fitting in with its roadside context, is its larger-than-life welcome sign. Five 16-foot-tall aluminum letterforms proudly spell out “ALIEF,” serving both as a welcoming symbol and a shade structure for the entry patio. As Jonas Risén aptly puts it, it’s “the biggest front porch in Texas.” The center doesn’t just cater to functionality; it creates an open, cozy ambiance. Art pieces adorn the grounds, celebrating the diversity and the sense of community that the Alief Neighborhood Center represents. 

Conceptually, the building functions as a versatile one-stop shop for various community needs, catering to different age groups. Grandparents can visit the senior center; parents can access WIC services; and children can enjoy the library, demonstrating the center’s versatility. Underscoring the design’s efficiency, Risén describes it as essentially “a vacuum-sealed, programmatic massing model.”

The task was to create a space that would allow the three departments housed within the building — health, parks, and library — to share facilities but still be able to function and provide the capacity needed for the community. The health department is conveniently located closest to the entrance and, according to Risén, experiences a substantial daily influx of visitors. One of the goals of the design was to spatially separate the health department from the parks department on the first floor, while the second floor houses the library department and “techlink” spaces. Despite this division, the design ensures a smooth connection within the building to enhance work efficiency and facilitate the use of shared meeting rooms. 

The Alief Neighborhood Center has become a vital part of the community, seamlessly blending with the landscape and becoming a highly coveted third space. It also serves as a prototype for inclusive design that will, hopefully, be replicated throughout Texas and beyond. By redefining the concept of third spaces within the sprawling expanse of Houston, the Alief Neighborhood Center & Park has not only addressed the challenges posed by the city’s unique urbanism but has also set a new standard for community-driven design. Its dynamic programmatic blend is thoughtfully arranged for efficiency and accessibility, and the artful design logic, both in the building and landscape, reflects a deep understanding of cultural diversity and urban resilience. From its larger-than-life welcome sign to its lush outdoor spaces, the center exudes a sense of community.

Rodrigo Gallardo is a recent graduate of the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Design at the University of Houston and is a designer at Protolab Architects.

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