HOUSTON – (Realty News Report, By Michelle Leigh Smith) – Houston community leaders and planners have unveiled “Plan Downtown: Converging Culture, Lifestyle and Commerce” – a vision of growth and planned development.
The long-range downtown plan calls for the development of 12,000 multifamily units, 4,000 hotel rooms with a cluster around the convention center, a five-mile green belt and extensive changes to transportation methods and activities.
As Houston approaches its bicentennial in 2036, the new report is a call for re-visioning downtown, a key element in advancing Houston as a great global city.
“We want to make Downtown the premier standard for livability, as well as business and government as well as an innovative leader in connectivity,” said Bob Eury, president of Central Houston, Inc. an organization he founded in 1983.
Eury, addressing a large audience at a downtown hotel room on Friday, spoke of Houston’s history and what he hopes will happen in the next 19 years.
“For well beyond a century, Downtown was the home of all city life,” he said. “In response to the dramatic growth starting in the 1950s, Downtown’s future seemed challenged.”
Though it retains its role as the economic engine of the city, Eury questioned how do we diversify into new areas of energy and build a stronger community among corporate leaders?
The new study states, “Today Downtown’s new entertainment, dining, nightlife and outdoor options are bringing new vitality to the formerly office-centric core. The plan calls for advance projects and improvements in the 2016 Houston Theater District Master Plan to create an immersive arts and culture environment and improved pedestrian and bicycling connections to Buffalo Bayou, continuing the Bayou’s park and trail enhancements eastward through Downtown.
What civic and business leaders saw Friday was the culmination of an 18-month planning effort aimed at Downtown as Houston’s Greatest Place to Be, between partners including the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, Theater District Houston, Greater East End Management District, Midtown Management District, Harris County, the Downtown Redevelopment Authority, Houston First Corporation, the City of Houston and Harris County.
The plan calls for an additional 4,000 hotel rooms in Downtown and EaDo to support convention, leisure and business visitation, with a 20-year goal of 12,000 hotel rooms in Downtown, with a minimum of 8,000 rooms within a 10-minute walk of the GRB Convention Center. Also two large convention center hotels will be added, near the eastern corners of the Convention District to enhance convention markets. Another goal will be amenity-rich infill neighborhoods to improve the environments surrounding Downtown’s stadiums.
A major part of the plan is the Green Loop, the concept Eury says “provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink Downtown’s edges. The Texas Department of Transportation’s North Houston Highway Improvement Project (NHHIP) is a 24-mile, $7 billion, decade-long infrastructure project. NHHIP entails a full rebuild of the three highways encircling Downtown, most notably with the realignment of IH-45 to the north and east of Downtown in shared right-of-ways with IH-10 and IH-69. As an “overlay” on the NHHIP, the five-mile Green Loop is a neighborhood connecting transportation and recreation circuit, with public space and adjacent development on all edges of Downtown.”
“With the TXDOT project in general, the new I-45 main lanes will join I-10 north of downtown and go over to I-69 and then turn and run parallel to I69 in a trench (below grade) and then 145 will turn and go down the Gulf Freeway,” Eury said. “The Pierce Elevated will be torn down and there will be a series of smaller lanes, a little like Spur 527 when you come off the Southwest Freeway.”
“Some of the architects at Page have had some ideas to repurpose the bridge because they see an opportunity for a linear public amenity that runs through where the Pierce is now, but planning has not progressed enough,” said Eury.
TxDOT’s work is expected to begin in late 2019 or early 2020..
Within this cornerstone of the vision, there are plans to design signature attractions such as tree allees, public art, and bridges of Buffalo and White Oak Bayous to present new skyline panoramas of Downtown and develop civic spaces like libraries, schools and community centers that front the Green Loop in support of the central city. The Green Loop is the epicenter of the new Bayous Greenways 20/20 initiative, to be used as the trailhead for visitors to discover Houston’s bayous and trails.
Plan Downtown poses the question: What makes a great street? Among the qualities are outdoor seating, flowers, plants and trees, continuity of development, pedestrian lighting, high quality materials, well-designed signage, color and texture, unique storefronts and indoor and outdoor transparency. There is also a consideration to connect entrances to the tunnel and skywalk network that supports the sidewalk and ground floor experiences, offering pedestrians a more legible and seamless flow between indoor and outdoor walking routes.
The plan boasts that Downtown has been Houston’s “leader in constructing Complete Streets, and almost 80 percent of Downtown’s streets and sidewalks have been rebuilt, most notably the Cotswold Project, Main Street, Downtown Transit Streets, the Lamar Cycletrack, Dallas Street and Avenida Houston.” The plan calls for Downtown Design Guidelines for Caroline and McKinney Street, with green walls, canopies, tree planting and building ground floors and public spaces with standards for flood protection and resilience.
It is unclear from the presentation how much of the plan was developed pre-Harvey. Surely some of the proposed underground features will be re-thought as lessons are learned from the massive losses at the Alley Theater, the Wortham Theaters and the loss of the new Jury Assembly room in the County’s courthouse complex, which spreads across a dozen city blocks in north Downtown.
“We are the most well positioned city to fuel the world’s energy demand in the next 50 years,” says attorney Ben Westcott. “And we have the local ingenuity to pull it off.”
Consultants Asakura Robinson, HR&A Advisors, Sasaki Associates and Traffic Engineers, Inc. contributed to the report.
If it is true as it’s been said that New Orleans has a toughness, born of the challenges of building on swampy land, Houston has a can do spirit that won’t be quelled. “What really characterizes us is the attitude we have – being able to establish a vision and accomplish it,” says Eury. “We sent a man to space.”
The depression of the freeways is expected to come with a new park – a surface-level lid of green space over the freeway below.
“What happens is north of Minute Maid Park, between 288, between Midtown and Third Ward, the road is already depressed, going south on I69 all the way through to Shepherd, it’s already below grade,” Eury said. “From TxDOT’s perspective, it’s important to recognize the newest part – near Montrose, did not flood during Harvey, the pumping technology worked, I think TxDOT feels they have a good plan in place.”
As he introduced “Converging Culture, Lifestyle and Commerce” to more than 1,000 guests in the ballroom of the Hilton of the Americas last week, Eury’s enthusiasm for Houston was contagious. He wore a World Champion World Series Astros cap.
“In the 43 years I’ve been here, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a time that was happier in this city,” said Eury. “It was just breathtaking. When I went back to my office after the Astros parade, I continued to witness hundreds of Houstonians who were thrilled to be downtown.”