Downtown Houston: New Art, New Parks and That Fortress Feeling

HOUSTON – Ralph Bivins of Realty News Report: The latest edition of The Ralph Bivins Project podcast, features an interview with Kris Larson, president and CEO of Central Houston.

RALPH BIVINS: Welcome, this is Ralph Bivins with the Ralph Bivins Project. We’re here today to talk about downtowns. They are the hub of cities, important places, places to live, work, enjoy and play. We are here today with Kris Larson, who has studied downtowns, works in downtown, is considered an expert in downtowns. He is president and CEO of Central Houston, which oversees the downtown of the fourth largest city in the nation. Perhaps the third largest city if we catch up with Chicago.

KRIS LARSON: Thanks, Ralph. I will share with you that my counterpart in Chicago is very nervous that we will catch up with them by the next census. It appears to be imminent. We just have to keep on growing. We’re going the right way.


RALPH: Kris, you’ve been on the job about six months. You came from L.A./Hollywood where you were doing similar work. We’ll start with an easy question. You’ve been here long enough. What do you feel is the best thing about downtown Houston?

KRIS: My favorite thing about downtown Houston? We’ve got a number of the key component parts that most cities would clamor for. Whether it’s a destination park like Discovery Green park or outstanding theater or ballparks or Fortune 500 headquarters companies. All of these are individual pieces that cities do fight over. We have a lot of building blocks to create a great and successful downtown.

RALPH: That was my softball question.

KRIS: Keep zippin’ ‘em in. I’m a former baseball player.

RALPH: What’s the biggest challenge facing us in downtown?

KRIS: The biggest challenge we have in downtown – my world and my work is focused on downtown specifically, to clarify for your audience. In downtown, we’ve got to do better at enabling greater connectivity, in particular, within the pedestrian realm and the spaces that connect all those assets that I just rattled off. We’ve got all these wonderful attractions and all these wonderful assets. The space between is where we’ve got a lot of work to do.

RALPH: Downtown has sidewalks. What more can you do?

KRIS: It comes down to activating the building edges, where the skyscrapers meet the streets.  We have a lot of passive types of land use, where the building walls reach down to the sidewalks.  There are a couple of things we can do to encourage walkability. And walkability is a critical component to the creation of cities. I know this runs counter to the way some people feel; the ones who envision cities as being made up of hardscapes and glass and steel and elements of physical skyline building tools. Cities are best when they are built to serve the needs of the people. These needs vary throughout the day. Often, these needs can be met with an active public realm and the creation of an active first level – where the buildings meet the streets.

We have opportunities to retrofit the current environment to encourage pedestrian vibrancy. This can be a panacea for some of the challenges facing us in the downtown.

Though I am new to the community – I’ve been in the saddle about six months – I have found that Houston is not a truly unique city. We have a lot of great components, but we operate in a climate similar to New Orleans, similar to Orlando, similar to Miami. A lot of cities around the globe have a hot climate. We have a tendency to want to reward ourselves for being the air conditioning capital of the planet. I think we could do a lot more things outside, and while it may not be 365 days a year, it could be 250 – and we can design for that.

RALPH :It’s true. When pedestrians approach a major edifice, such as a 50-story building, from the sidewalk, it’s not always welcoming thing. But consider the new Hines tower, known as the Texas Tower. It does have street-level restaurants and a welcoming lobby. This accessibility to pedestrians is an improvement over the fortress thing. Accessibility is a good goal; I like what you’re saying.

KRIS: It has other advantages as well. I certainly think that functional repositioning of some ground floor segments of a building is possible – not everywhere, though. Most sophisticated developers like Hines recognize that an active ground floor adds value to the upper floors; it adds value to the perception of the property itself. And it’s a small component of the property itself.  There are other benefits to these modifications. As a pedestrian, as you move through the community, it’s a benefit to have more things to occupy your mind – more things to look at, to observe. These things help truncate the passage of distance. If you take an exciting walk of three, four or five blocks, you do not notice the passage of time. It’s an enjoyable experience.  We have a very flat downtown in Houston, something that other communities would love to have. It is highly walkable and highly bikeable.

We do hear concerns from property owners about the perception of safety. If you are walking along a sidewalk alone, particularly after dark, there can be a feeling of vulnerability. By emphasizing the element of vibrancy, the feeling that you are walking among your peers, it helps to support your feeling of comfort in a community.

 Kris Larson’s biography

Kristopher “Kris” Larson was selected as president and CEO of the Central Houston association to succeed Bob Eury, who served that organization and its affiliates for 38 years. The leadership at Central Houston had been searching for Eury’s replacement for years. Niloufar Molavi, Central Houston’s board chair, said “Kris is a next generation leader that will honor and build on Bob’s work and legacy while continuing to move our central city in a positive direction.” Kris, formerly of Raleigh, N.C., has a background in urban management, planning and economic development. He was most recently president and CEO of The Hollywood Partnership, one of several major improvement districts in the Los Angeles region. Before his L.A. work, he served as president and CEO of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance and Downtown Grand Rapids Inc.

May 10, 2022 – Realty News Report Copyright 2022.

File:Downtown Houston: New Art, New Parks



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