HOUSTON – (Excerpt from Houston 2020: America’s Boom Town by Ralph Bivins) — — The boundaries of downtown Houston will be erased over the next decade.
The Pierce Elevated, a stretch of Interstate 45 that cuts across the southern part of downtown will be removed. Supported by heavy-duty structural columns, the roadway has been a barrier between Downtown and Midtown. The ground-level space under the freeway is a loud and filthy place, often used over the years by the homeless as a bed and a bathroom.
Its removal means a grotesque fixture of blight leaves the city for good.
The Pierce Elevated posed as a barrier, restricting the positive flow of development momentum between Downtown and Midtown. Secondly, the freeway relocation will blur the eastern boundaries of downtown. Where will Downtown end and EaDo (the redeveloping district just east of downtown) begin? Opportunities to realign the western edge of downtown are emerging also.
Change is coming
Two decades from now, downtown Houston may be unrecognizable from today. By then, the central business district of Space City will boast a Green Loop — a five-mile pedestrian and bike circuit connecting downtown with adjoining neighborhoods, driverless cars. At least, this is the vision of downtown planners.
Currently encircled by Interstates 10, 45, and 69, the Houston downtown of tomorrow will no longer have those concrete thoroughfares separating the central core from the surrounding lower-density communities. The Central Business District will mesh perfectly with the other areas that were left behind when the freeways were built.
And Houston’s downtown of 2040 will have many more green oases including a grand public space similar to Klyde Warren Park in Dallas — a popular 5.2-acre park spanning over the Woodall Rodgers Freeway and connecting uptown with downtown Dallas — with traffic flowing underneath and people enjoying the outdoors above.
The downtown of Houston — currently the nation’s fourth largest city — will undergo a transformation thanks to the North Houston Highway Improvement Project (NHHIP), which provides a unique opportunity to bring together parts of Houston that were separated when the highways were built decades ago. The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), through the Project, has identified seven billion dollars in capital investments to support mobility and improve highway safety — and bring a more vibrant pedestrian life to downtown Houston.
“The North Houston Highway Improvement Project represents a once-in-a-century chance to literally remake our central city, not just along the Pierce Elevated but around downtown and in areas to the north,” said architect Guy Hagstette, vice president, parks and civic projects, Kinder Foundation. Central Houston (a private, non-profit corporation), has worked for nearly a decade with TxDOT on managing the impact of the project and exploring opportunities with communities along the route. “The ‘Green Loop’ around downtown and a greenway along Little White Oak Bayou to Acres Homes being proposed by the Houston Parks Board are great examples.”
Hagstette added it is clearly an opportunity to replicate Dallas’ success with its internationally recognized Klyde Warren Park — only Houston’s version will be six times the scale (approximately 30 acres) and a part of the even bigger Green Loop.
“With three sports venues and the George R. Brown Convention Center nearby, the park can be a neighbor- hood park for EaDo, a great introduction for visitors to Houston and its bayou trails system, and a sorely needed venue for the city-wide celebrations that are outgrowing Discovery Green and Eleanor Tinsley Park,” Hagstette said.
Public and private city leaders are rethinking transit options based on the North Houston Highway Improvement Project, which calls for rebuilding the three highways encircling downtown and realigning Interstate 45 to the north and east.
Ric Campo: “Bridges Have To Be Fixed”
“All the freeways around the country generally go through the downtown area and Houston is no different,” said Ric Campo, the chief executive officer of Camden Property Trust, and chairman of the Quality of Place Committee for the North Houston Highway Improvement Project.
“Here the freeways were built in the ’50s and ’60s. So today, when people think about downtown, they see it is a ring of freeways. You have I-45 on the west, the Pierce Elevated on the south side — which connects 45 to south 59 — and on the north side you have I-10. Because of the age of the freeways, a lot of bridges have to be fixed, but rather than fix them the way they are, TxDOT is going to make major changes in the freeways configuration.”
The relocation of these urban roadways will be monumental, like the changing of the course of mighty river along an international border. The boundaries of downtown Houston will never be the same. Prime urban real estate will be transformed. The road rerouting is similar to untangling a knot of twine.
“What’s going to happen,” Campo said, “is that 45 will be moved north adjacent to I-10 and side-by-side with 59 on the east side of downtown. 45 and 59 are going to be depressed and TxDOT will put a cap on it from George R. Brown Convention Center to the south and go all the way past the ballpark [Minute Maid Park stadium] to the north. There will be a green space park larger than Discovery Green put in place on the cap. That’s a game changer. On the south side, the Pierce Elevated will be abandoned and could be turned into a high-line park or other green space.”
The road work is not a dusty proposal sitting on a bureaucrat’s shelf. It will definitely happen, government officials say.
“What’s important is that the project is fully funded byTxDOT and it should start in 2020 and be finished in 2026 or 2027,” Campo said.
The road rebuilding will deliver strong economic benefits, officials say. HR&A Advisors, a consulting firm focused on real estate and economic development, analyzed the potential economic and community benefits of the plans for Houston. HR&A found that full implementation of the plan — ranging from highly activated regional parks to more intimate neighborhood gathering places and trails along the bayous to redeveloped green districts — would generate economic benefits of between $5.6 billion and $9 billion over twenty years. Implementation of the plan, HR&A says, will generate increases in the value of existing real estate assets, new real estate development, new visitor spending, and worker and resident attraction to central Houston.
Bob Eury, president of Central Houston Inc., said the Green Loop is the major recommendation of “Plan Downtown: Converging Culture, Lifestyle & Commerce.” The report is the result of fifteen months’ work with a very large, nineteen- member leadership group that was part of a 166-member steering committee.
“It’s fairly ambitious and is drawing the most attention,” Eury added. “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.”
The main lanes of Interstate 45 will be reconstructed to run parallel to Interstate 10 north and parallel Interstate 69 on the east side.
Then it turn and fall into the right of way of Interstate 45 toward Galveston. With this reconstruction, the Pierce Elevated would not be needed. “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,” said Eury.
“Once the realignment is completed, the Pierce Elevated could go away altogether or could be repurposed into 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 one hundred 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,” Eury said.
Building a park on top, similar to the successful Klyde Warren Park in Dallas, would be a welcome amenity for resi dents. “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,” Eury added. “The area in Houston contemplated would be considerably bigger with a larger amount of green space and it might be public space.” The Klyde Warren park achieved something else — a significant increase in property values as land near the park became valuable locations for high-rise development. The Dallas park was a launch pad, and it is now ringed with new development, much of it high-rise.
Another benefit: the state-funded improvements mean Houston could have both faster-moving traffic and cleaner air — counterintuitive as that sounds. Motionless cars stuck in traffic produce more emissions than traffic passing smoothly. The improvements in design are expected to increase speed on Inter- state 45 by twenty-five miles per hour, said Campo. “This would reduce the ‘smokestack effect’ that occurs when people are driving twenty-five mph slower,” he said. “Going that extra twenty-five miles faster improves Houston air so much that some say Houston could be in compliance with the Clean Air Act just from this project.”
Reconnecting Houston neighborhoods that were left behind by the highway construction is very important and so is the increase in parks and green space that will be a great addition to downtown. “It’s one more reason for companies to be attracted to a downtown location,” said downtown office broker Paula Bruns, vice president of Colvill Office Properties (which merged with Cushman & Wakefield in 2020.) “Downtown already has significant amenities — restaurants, hotels and apartments and it is very walkable. Removing the Pierce Elevated will make downtown more attractive for tenants, who have become more focused on workplace environments.”
(Excerpt from Houston 2020: America’s Boom Town – an Extreme Close Up by Ralph Bivins. Published by Fifth Estate Media. Available on Amazon. )
Update: The Texas Department of Public Transportation just released its environmental analysis of the freeway rebuilding plan and a 30-day comment period is beginning. Some people are concerned about the eminent domain takings and a neighborhood group has voiced opposition to the project, which will take years to complete.
Sept. 29, 2020 Realty News Report Copyright 2020.
Houston 2020: America’s Boom Town – An Extreme Close Up..Copyright 2018 Ralph Bivins through Fifth Estate Media LLC. All rights reserved.
Caption- Photo: Downtown Houston by Ralph Bivins. Copyright 2020.