The Community Designer


Diversity makes for some unexpected pairings. In the case of Jeff Neal, who was raised in an open environment growing up in the Houston area, it was part of everyday life. His initial post-high school move was to the Montrose neighborhood in 1984, and he described the seven years he lived in the up-and-coming neighborhood of gay and lesbian residents as formative for his core beliefs and his longtime friendships. It also led him to the woman who would become his wife, Victoria Corcoran.

Neal knew Brandi Nelson from attending the same high school in Spring Branch, while Corcoran was a friend of hers when they both worked at the Women’s Advocacy Center. In October 2008, Nelson invited both Corcoran and Neal to a dinner party where they may have been the only single straight people in the room. Hours later, long after the plates had been cleared, the two were still talking.

“She claims that she thought I was gay, but I don’t know if that’s true or not,” he said with a laugh.

Almost everyone at this party was [gay], so I was totally relaxed, not thinking there could be any romantic potential there for me,” said Corcoran, who runs Corcoran & Co., which helps nonprofits raise money. “We were the only people still seated, talking, and I think it took me five or six hours to even ask myself: could he…is he straight?”

They took a trip to Rome in November 2010 because Corcoran had visited the city before, and they could indulge their mutual interests in art, design and culture while traveling. While they were at the Trevi Fountain, one of the largest baroque fountains in the ancient city, Neal surreptitiously snapped a picture of a ring he’d already purchased. Later that day, while looking through the pictures on his phone, Corcoran saw it.

“I got down on one knee,” said Neal. “It was a real split second—and she shed some tears. I made her cry.”

Both enjoy dinners out on the town and traveling to cities like Chicago. They also appreciate great art and design and have a strong connection to the ethos of giving back to the community. “I have such enormous respect and awe for who Jeff is as a person,” said Corcoran. “He’s hard-working, for sure, but my god his vision: the breadth of ideas, the references and craftsmanship.”

Neal’s love of the outdoors was formed early on. Child­hood afternoons meant time outdoors, playing baseball and other games. His mother was an immaculate house­keeper, and there were always fresh flowers around. He sketched buildings inspired by an architectural encyclo­pedia set and admired the classic French furniture in the house. Although his appreciation for aesthetics was clear, it wasn’t until he was living in a garage apartment in Hyde Park with some backyard space that he got into gardening and planted his first one.

After transferring from UT to study landscape archi­tecture at Texas A&M, Neal cut his teeth at one of Texas’ top landscape architecture firms, Gardens, an industry pioneer founded by Gary Peese and James David—part­ners in life and work. Peese and David needed a house sitter for their beautiful home in Rollingwood while they traveled. Needless to say, Neal was delighted and developed a true appreciation for the home’s craftsmanship, design and lush surroundings.

“I’d walk the grounds, look at all the books, look at all the detail,” he said, adding that many people have called the well-appointed home a mini-Versailles. “And then the gardens. I would just walk around in the evenings. I learned a lot from just staying there.”

At A&M, he learned all about the technical aspects of landscape design. As an intern and later employee of Gar­dens, he was able to put his knowledge into practice and pursue his passion. Neal stayed with Gardens for 12 years.

He launched Jeff Neal Design two years ago and hopes that the business will continue to grow; his biggest challenge now is time management. He and his wife have worked with a number of nonprofits, including Austin Shake­speare, the Human Rights Campaign, and Project Transi­tions. Ultimately, Neal said that he wants his firm’s suc­cess to fuel a high level of engagement with the broader community, helping to build Austin into a better city.

“Being around these people (in the nonprofit community) and admiring them, it was just a natural progression,” said Neal, an Austin resident since 1992. “It’s inspiring to see how the lesbian and gay community pulls together.”