A grove of 22 mature live oaks is about the only thing left from the old Alief Community Center in Houston. The building and the rest of the site were scrapped to make way for a new, multipurpose neighborhood center and park, but the value of old-growth shade in Texas is on display in the front yard of the two-story building that’s nearing completion after two years of construction. An entry drive swoops up and around the grove, in deference to the trees, and meets up with a first level that’s been elevated above the five-hundred-year flood mark. A soaring roof covers the massive entry patio. Jonas Risen, lead designer for the building’s architect, Page, calls it “the biggest front porch in Texas.” Sixteen-foot tall aluminum letters hang above that porch, spelling out “ALIEF” like a welcome sign to the surrounding neighborhood, announcing the structure to Texas as the first multipurpose center of its kind.
The 70,000-square-foot Alief Neighborhood Center combines the functions of the sixty-year-old recreation hall it replaces, with the added bonuses of a public library, a senior center, and a women, infants, and children (WIC) clinic run by the Houston Health Department. The strikingly modern building—clad in glass, battleship-gray aluminum panels, and brick that’s a shade lighter than black—rises two stories above a 38-acre park. A public pool, a skate park, soccer fields, and courts for tennis, pickleball, and basketball are arranged around a massive playground behind the building. “We hope that this will be a model that will be replicated across the city,” said Richard Vella, assistant director of Houston’s General Services Department (GSD), who conceived of the massive project and is overseeing its completion.
It might seem obvious to combine so many services for neighborhood residents in one structure, but it’s a rarity for publicly funded buildings. The GSD manages the construction and maintenance of more than three hundred facilities in the city, from fire stations to city parks, but every entity requests its own funding for its own buildings to be renovated or rebuilt as they reach the ends of their useful lives. It’s a process designed to be territorial rather than collaborative, and it isn’t unique to Houston. But in Alief, the GSD recognized that three public buildings in the neighborhood were all due for replacement. Vella had studied the multipurpose MacBain Community Centre in Niagara Falls, Ontario, and he decided the time was right for a similar project in Houston—one in which the Alief WIC Center, the library, and the community center would join forces. “By combining those departments, we were able to be more efficient and provide more than we would have if it were three independent buildings,” said Dimitri Karavias. He’s the division manager of capital planning and operations for GSD, and he managed this project personally.
Of the three old buildings, it was the community center that had been ignored for far too long. “[Residents] advocated for this project for over twenty years,” Karavias said. One of those locals was Tiffany Thomas. She grew up in the neighborhood, graduated from Alief Elsik High School, then went on to represent the next generation on the Alief ISD school board. In 2019 she won the city council seat for Alief. “One of my first votes was to authorize the funds for the construction of the building,” Thomas said of her participation in the unanimous vote in January 2020. There was no federal or state help for the $59 million project, which was entirely supported by city funds. Thomas credits the Alief Super Neighborhood Council for keeping the pressure on the city to provide the funding, and said it felt good for her vote to help give Alief a win like that.
Each Houston city council district is denoted with a letter. Alief is in District F. “The joke is that the ‘F’ stands for forgotten,” Thomas said. That’s due somewhat to Alief’s location outside the beltway, west of Sam Houston Parkway, but it’s also because Alief is a low-income neighborhood with a majority-minority population. It is home to first-generation immigrants from across the world and to refugee communities, including those from one state over. After Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, Louisiana natives sought shelter here, many permanently. Thomas’s neighbors when she was growing up were from Vietnam, Guatemala, Iraq, and Ghana. More than eighty languages and dialects are spoken in Alief ISD schools.
“We are the cultural currency of the city,” Thomas often says. It has become her tagline for the community she represents, and it’s meant to remind people that Alief is a big reason Houston enjoys its much-celebrated cultural diversity. Thanks to the forgotten district, the city’s residents enjoy experiences like traditional Chinese lion dance ceremonies in a local park, specialty foods imported to Wazobia African Market, and immigrant artwork exhibited at Alief Art House. There’s also a diverse selection of restaurants, like the famed Crawfish & Noodles a block east of the neighborhood center and the Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai restaurants that surround the Hong Kong City Mall. James Beard Award finalist and Texas Monthly Top 50 BBQ restaurant Blood Bros. BBQ is too far down Bellaire to be in Alief proper, but it’s run by a trio of pitmasters proud of their Alief upbringings. Hell, Lizzo and Kelly Rowland both attended Elsik, the same high school as Thomas, and comedian Mo Amer attended Hastings, their rival high school in Alief. Still, she said, “no one has really championed us.”
In February 2014, Thomas decided it was time for the community to champion itself. She had just won the school board election, and she had some leftover campaign funds that she used for a robocall to neighborhood residents. “I want to invite you on Saturday to the Alief Community Center,” she remembers recording. A hundred residents arrived, not knowing exactly why they’d been summoned, and she asked them for input on a new community center. It didn’t yet have funding or an architect, but Thomas wanted the neighborhood to envision its own future. “We get to create what we want it to look like,” she told them.
Thomas is a natural at this sort of organizing. She teaches courses on community planning and development at Prairie View A&M University. That early meeting was the first of many, and they were eventually led by GSD and the architecture firm. “Their attitude was positive and enthusiastic,” Risen of Page said of the residents he and his team worked with. (Risen was a classmate of mine at Tulane’s architecture school.) “There was some concern, as you might expect, that they wouldn’t be able to provide the services they were used to providing in a shared space,” he said, but the design team was able to show how residents would have access to more services, not fewer.
He gave me a few examples as we walked around the construction site: Parents waiting for WIC services downstairs could send their kids up to the library. Seniors could watch healthy cooking classes aimed at treating diabetes in the WIC demonstration kitchen. Children in after-school enrichment programs would have use of what’s called the TechLink space, which has a green screen and video equipment for making films, audio-recording and mixing equipment for music, and a garment center with sewing and embroidery equipment for designing clothing and costumes. The hope is that by offering all these services in one place, the neighborhood center will be a home to residents of all ages. A dad who stops by for a pickup basketball game might return with his kids who want to record music, or a senior who comes to watch a grandkid play soccer might decide to take up pickleball. The building’s plan is meant to foster real community connections between generations that would normally use separate facilities.
The surrounding park’s design was just as important as that of the building. Architects designed around the grove of oaks that shaded the front of the old building, which will remain a quiet outdoor space away from the sports facilities. The site was dead flat when design began, and the team searched for ways to create elevation. The building already had to be raised at least seven feet to meet new post-Harvey flood regulations, so the architects decided to put the parking lot underneath. (Athletes returning from the basketball court or the soccer fields to their shaded cars in summer will certainly applaud that decision.) The views from the higher floors across the site are stunning. A climbing wall rises from behind the playground, with a skate park beyond. (Between the two is a crest that project leaders have dubbed Mount Alief, from which the full site can be surveyed. It’s where Karavias said he starts all of his site tours.) A local skate shop was so excited about the skate park that it shared a drone shot of the park on social media. Local skaters arrived, but they were asked to be patient and wait until it was no longer a construction zone before perfecting their kickflips. Thomas was excited to tell the skate park’s designer about the buzz he’d created, especially since he’s her neighbor.
More than seven years after that first meeting, Thomas will be there to help cut the ribbon when the doors open in late October. “Other districts are now saying, ‘We want one of those,’ ” she said with a giddy laugh. She knows her neighborhood now has a jewel it’ll soon be able to enjoy, as well as an iconic building that will draw people in from around the region. Being the envy of the rest of Houston is a position Thomas feels plenty comfortable with, and she hopes it will help change the negative perception of her home. She said simply, “It’s what we deserve.”
Update 9/13/22: This story has been updated to include the role of Alief Super Neighborhood Council in the project, and to clarify those who attended high school in Alief.