Hawaii and Houston wouldn't seem to have much in common on first glance. But Patricia King-Ritter, president of the new Evelyn's Park in Bellaire, would argue otherwise—at least on a small scale.
"I don't know if you've ever hiked Haleakala in Maui," King-Ritter comments as we set off on a walking trip through the park that now occupies what was once Teas Nursery, the legendary plant vendor that closed in 2010 after a century of selling rose bushes and orange trees to generations of Houstonians. "It's amazing. It's basically a huge desert that's sandy and really hard to hike. As you're moving through, you wonder, What even grows here? But there's all this different vegetation that can grow. Every part of the hike felt like you were in a different landscape."
And that sense of mutability, says King-Ritter, was the inspiration for Evelyn's Park, designed by landscape architecture firm SWA and named in honor of the mother of the men who bought the land—Maury “Bo” Rubenstein and Jerry Rubenstein—with the intention of transforming it into a community gathering place for their Bellaire neighborhood.
As we stroll through the 5-acre site, a canopy of old oak trees gives way to a gravel pathway surrounded by thick bushes that mute the sound of traffic on Bellaire Boulevard, which then opens up into a broad, grassy lawn, which in turn is bordered by wetlands-type environment with a small creek on one side and, on the other, a whimsical flower garden that will soon be anchored by an Alice in Wonderland statue. Everywhere you look in the park, you see a different side of nature, which is exactly how King-Ritter and her team envisioned it.
In that sense, Evelyn's Park is different from other recently unveiled urban parks in Houston: downtown's bustling Discovery Green hosts endless events and concerts, while Upper Kirby's colorful Levy Park offers a non-stop whirl of activity within its newly redesigned playgrounds and dog parks. Here, on a residential corner of Bellaire, a slower pace prevails.
There is a bandshell, yes, but it's smaller and less central to the park's design than the manicured gardens and winding walking paths. There's a restaurant, but it's tucked into the former birthplace of Teas patriarch John Frederick Teas; the renovated Little Yellow House, now christened Ivy & James, under the leadership of chef Jamie Zelko, offers both homestyle food and a sense of being at home, whether eating inside or on the porch under those broad oak trees. There's an air-conditioned indoor space that can function as a reception hall for weddings, a meeting space (complete with AV equipment) or a family reunion destination, but it's tucked away, letting the greenery of the park take center stage.
"Here in the park, I feel like it's kind of magical," says King-Ritter, who appreciates the grounded tranquility of the place. "There's the buzz of Bellaire, but these magnificent oak trees and all the greenery that you see... I feel really at peace."
After two years in the making, Evelyn's Park officially opens to the public on Earth Day, April 22. In celebration of both events, the Evelyn's Park Conservancy will host a Picnic in the Park from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., with everything from food trucks and a farmers market to beer tastings and live entertainment. As parking is limited, The Wave will be offering shuttle service, while area residents are encouraged ride their bikes; Evelyn's Park offers a bounty of bike racks in addition to a bike repair station, directly outside Ivy & James.
And speaking of Ivy & James, chef Zelko will be pre-selling picnic lunches to be picked up and enjoyed on April 22, no muss, no fuss. A single lunch is $15, which includes a commemorative limited The Ivy & James reusable lunch bag, Kettle chips, a cookie and your choice of sandwich (the roasted chicken with white cheddar, arugula and olive mayo on a fresh baked baguette would be our choice); a lunch for two is $35 and includes a limited edition Evelyn's Park farmer's market tote bag, two sandwiches, two bags of chips, two cookies and a pint of pasta salad; and the "All-American Basket," which feeds four, is $75 and includes a limited edition Evelyn's Park collapsible picnic basket, four sandwiches, four bags of chips, four cookies, a quart of pasta salad and two pints of fruit.
Additional events planned after the grand opening include weekly farmers markets, a free Family Fit Day, an "Evelyn's Bark" pet adoption event, a post-Thanksgiving "Burn the Bird" workout, and more. But first and foremost, Evelyn's Park is just that: a park, with the gardens, canopies, lawns and benches that make it a relaxing destination amidst the ever-increasing din of the city.