HOUSTON – (Realty News Report) – What will Downtown Houston look like in 20 years? It should have an Innovation District, a Green Loop – a five-mile pedestrian and bike circuit connecting downtown with adjoining neighborhoods — driverless cars and no traffic lights or street signs. That’s according to Plan Downtown: Converging Culture, Lifestyle & Commerce, which was unveiled earlier this month. One of the key recommendations is rethinking transit options based on TxDot’s North Houston Highway Improvement Project that calls for rebuilding the three highways encircling downtown and realigning Interstate 45 to the north and east. To find out more about the Plan, Realty News Report sat down with Bob Eury. For 34 years, Eury has served as President of Central Houston Inc., a private, nonprofit corporation, formed to lead the planning and implementation of the redevelopment of Houston’s central city area—principally downtown. Eury is also the Executive Director of the Houston Downtown Management District, a special assessment district within downtown Houston. Eury was Vice President and Director of Research Development for Rice Center prior to helping to start Central Houston in 1983.
Realty News Report: You just released an ambitious vision for Houston’s Central core. Can you describe it briefly?
Bob Eury: Plan Downtown: Converging Culture, Lifestyle & Commerce is the result of 15 months work with a very large, 19-member leadership group which was part of a 166-member steering committee. We conducted a huge public outreach and I feel pretty good about that. We really went deep trying to get input from a diversity of folks. We started with the consulting team last fall but didn’t go public until after Houston hosted the 2017 Super Bowl. People had other things on their minds. We felt it would be helpful coming off a very successful Super Bowl hosting to start our work as people were asking ‘what’s next?’. We used a 20-year horizon for the report. Twenty years is a long period of time, but we felt it was helpful to have that horizon. Anything beyond 20 years we thought would be harder to fathom. In 2004, we had similar recommendations for downtown — a plan to guide the public and private direction in terms of downtown’s future development. Following that plan, we probably accomplished 70% of the recommendations including the creation of Discovery Green. Some of the others like closing Texas Avenue and rerouting some streets weren’t really possible. The 2017 plan has more far reaching recommendations. It’s a game plan on how to move forward. It’s not a playbook. There are things have to be figured out. It’s more one of ‘here’s the direction we want to go, here’s the common vision, here are the common goals’ plan. If you don’t have a plan like this, you tend to chase whatever’s in front of you.
Realty News Report: The report offers a series of 10 long-term strategies and 144 specific recommendations for the city center over the next 20 years. What’s the most ambitious recommendation? How do you envision it being achieved?
Bob Eury: Our major recommendation is the Green Loop. It’s fairly ambitions and is drawing the most attention. TxDot is moving forward with major reconstruction of the highways downtown. Infrastructure improvements are needed, and it can become opportunity to redevelop edges of downtown, to better connect downtown and adjacent neighborhoods.
Realty News Report: Highway realignment is one of the major components. TxDOT is relocating the Pierce Elevated. What will happen to the land that is now under the Pierce?
Bob Eury: What is planned is the main lanes of I-45 will be reconstructed to run parallel to I-10 north and parallel I-69 on the east side then turn and fall into the right of way of I-45 toward Galveston. With this reconstruction, we wouldn’t need the Pierce Elevated. We still would have to have access to the west side of downtown; there would be smaller connector lanes to exits on the west side. Once the realignment is completed, the Pierce could get torn down, opening up opportunities for public spaces. Or the Pierce Elevated could be used as a linear green space and reconnect downtown with midtown, the Fourth Ward and Freedmen’s Town, which were cut off in the early 60s when the freeways were constructed. On the west side by City Hall and Hobby Center, some of the buildings could be reoriented. There are some 100 acres on the west side including the municipal courts, police and fire as well as the theater district. There is a tremendous amount of city owned land in this area offering opportunities for new and redeveloped public and potentially private buildings.
Realty News Report: Depressing the freeways beside the George R. Brown and building a park on top, similar to the successful Klyde Warren Park in Dallas, has been discussed. Will this be accomplished in Houston?
Bob Eury: On the east side, the new freeway will be below grade — in a trench with a cap over the top — so there could be an open area like Klyde Warren Park in Dallas. The area in Houston contemplated would be considerably bigger with a larger amount of green space and it might be public space.
Realty News Report: Traffic-wise, with the highways being aligned, will there be a lot of pain initially (highway closings, etc.) for a lot of gain later on?
Bob Eury: Yes, there will be traffic pain. But TxDot has shown itself to be very proficient at managing highway construction. One good thing is that TxDot’s plans will allow for new a new roadway with a lot of it constructed off line. When TxDot lowered the freeway between Shepherd and Montrose and constructed those walls, it did in a fairly remarkable way and kept traffic moving while excavating. TxDot is also focused on its pumping capability. The Southwest Freeway did not flood during Hurricane Harvey; it was not filled with water.
Realty News Report: How does the new downtown plan deal with Mother Nature’s tantrums? How will you combat/prevent flooding?
Bob Eury: We were finishing up our work when Harvey hit and we thought it was probably not appropriate for us to be prescriptive regarding flood mitigation. Houston needs to make ourselves more resilient to flooding, especially in those areas where new development is occurring. We should be thinking clearly about making the buildings more resilient, designing them knowing that they may get wet and prepared for that but also for a very quick recovery. Downtown, the area that seems to be prone to flooding is very small and tends to be on the western edge. One item in the plan is the White Oak diversion channel – having White Oak’s water enter Buffalo Bayou three-fourths mile downstream from where it does today at Main Street. When White Oak backs up Buffalo Bayou and Buffalo Bayou can’t move the water very rapidly and we want it to more quickly.
Realty News Report: You’re counting on dramatic growth continuing downtown and technical advances like autonomous vehicles. How will that work? How will you generate increased economic activity?
Bob Eury: In recent years we haven’t grown that much downtown in employment; we’ve set a target of increasing employment by 20%. That may seem timid, but we must grow. We see it happening in two ways. First off there is a fabulous stock of existing buildings downtown built in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. One of the things we’re seeing in today’s workplace is more collaborative space, more meet and greet areas. So there is product ready for that. There are two new Hines buildings downtown and they’re state of the art. Brookfield’s property, The Acre, is the kind of investment we will see more of to attract new business. The other piece obviously is new business. Energy is important to us, but it is far more technological now than it used to be. With all that adaptability comes innovation. We’re already seeing innovation and start-ups downtown and we’re planning for a strong innovation district within downtown. The reason is simple: research has shown that the number of patents correlates to the density of people, and downtown is the most dense area around!
Realty News Report: The Downtown Living Initiative, which provided $15,000 per unit in tax breaks for new residential development, was a successful stimulus for new development. Should Houston launch another version of the initiative?
Bob Eury: The Downtown Living Initiative was very successful. Downtown is picking up traction because it’s establishing itself as a place to live. We’ve had residential downtown for years, of course, but not much. Downtown was not a player in the multifamily market except for places like The Rice. We’d like to have 30,000 residences downtown over the next two decades. In looking at other major cities, when you hit 20,000 to 30,000 residents, you have enough population so it is a market to itself. You can have grocery and retail there. We are starting to pick that up today as we move towards that goal. The Initiative is closed now, but there are still projects yet to be finished that were previously approved. We would hope more projects come on line. Downtown, there are roughly 1,400 units in pipeline with 300 under construction.
Realty News Report: What about housing affordability downtown? How will you stimulate that? Perhaps use public land?
Bob Eury: Affordable housing is very important. Compared to other cities, we have very few older buildings that are residential properties, or could be used for residential. If you go other cities in U.S., there are tons of apartments that are more affordable in reasonable quality, older buildings. Houston doesn’t have a lot of that. Here, if you want more housing, you have to build it. So we’re really faced with a cost dilemma. Yes, it might be possible with public land as an incentive. That would that help, but there not a lot of opportunities for that – you’re not going to find available public land at Texas and Main, for example, where land is $400-$500 a square foot. But we have housing in downtown as well as on the edge of downtown. There are 65,000 people living in a two-mile radius of the middle of downtown. As you get further away from downtown, you have much lower land costs, and more ability to find land where you can build units more affordably. We have excellent rail and bus transportation — all kinds of ways to connect – and we’re beginning to work with the city and adjacent communities for central city housing.
Realty News Report: You envision thousands more hotel rooms downtown. Why?
Bob Eury: What we’re really trying to do is become a competitor in the Top 10 convention facilities in America. To do that, we need another 4,000 hotel rooms in addition to 8,000 rooms we have today in downtown. But it’s tricky; we have to be careful with demand. At the end of 1990s cycle, downtown Houston had four hotels with 1,800 rooms – and half of those rooms were in the Hyatt! Today we have 25 hotels downtown and 7,800 rooms. There are three hotel projects in pipeline that could bring us up to 8,300 rooms. With enough hotel rooms, we could ramp up our convention and tourism business.