Turning Downtown Houston into a leading multi-modal center

 

How will Plan Downtown establish Downtown Houston as a leading multi-modal center?

Pillar Four of the strategic initiative seeks to answer this question. More specifically, how to connect Downtown Houston to the general region, and how to capitalize on Downtown’s place as a walkable area with bikeway, greenway, transit and roadway networks.

Dr. Carol Lewis, Professor and Director of the College of Science, Technology and Engineering at Texas Southern University, has spent much of her esteemed career researching transportation planning and policy, public transit operations and public involvement. Here, Dr. Lewis discusses improvements that will ensure Downtown Houston flourishes as a destination rich with flexibility in mobility options.

The goal? To improve neighborhood edge conditions, reduce barriers and expand green networks, with streets serving as connectors to destinations that reinforce opportunities for land uses.

Q: Why is Downtown Houston important to the region?
A: Downtown is the symbolic heart of the city. At one time, people joked that one could roll up the streets of Downtown at the end of the workday. That wasn’t good. This core is the seat of government for most of the region’s residents (City of Houston and Harris County), the historic location of the city’s founding, plus its cultural core, with theaters, sports and entertainment. A strong Downtown will serve as the pulse of the region.

Q: Why do you feel we need to talk mobility now?
A: Because the City of Houston and our region are going to gain millions of people over the next ten years. Essentially, we’re going to get the city of San Antonio and layer it on top of Houston. We’re already having trouble with our mobility.

I think mobility Downtown is critical because if people can’t get Downtown, it’s going to signal something negative for the rest of the region. We have to have enough dialogue around it to make sure our decisions are correct.

Q: What improvements can be done to make Downtown more walkable?
A: Beyond the physical — like increasing sidewalk width, adding a strip separating pedestrians from vehicular traffic and improving lighting conditions at night — opening more ground-level retail and giving people other places to go would make Downtown more walkable.

The key to making an area more walkable is people. We have to get more people Downtown. It’s happening already, so we need to fuel that trend. Include more buildings that face the street with glass facades. If I’m outside, I can see people inside. If I’m inside, I can see people outside. That gives everyone a heighten sense of security.

Lighting has to be sufficient. You can’t feel like it’s dark or shadowy.

Q: What improvements can be made to better connect Downtown and central city neighborhoods?
A: Multiple easy transportation options, transit, Greenlink, taxi — I advocate a Downtown and Midtown zone where taxis are frequent, can be hailed on-street and are single priced within the zone.

When walking out of a door to the nearest corner, there should be something one could catch and ride within a couple of minutes.

Q: How will public transportation affect the growth of Downtown? Why is public transportation important
A: In other cities, I have seen development gravitate toward station locations, which indicates permanence. We are seeing that at the Ensemble Station now. It’s not uncommon for that development to happen 10 to 30 years behind a station opening.

In a recent meeting for Plan Downtown, we all learned that the people who live closest to Downtown are still driving their cars, and the people who are taking transit are the ones who live farthest away. Why is that? I think it gives us something to investigate.

It comes down to, I propose, that I’m always going to do what’s easiest for people most of the time.

Urban living: What would convince you to move to Downtown Houston?

 

Urban living: What would convince you to move to Downtown Houston?
Would you live in Downtown Houston? Yes? No? If the latter, what would need to change in order for you to find urban living in Downtown Houston enticing?

Plan Downtown committees and participants are charged with exploring options to enhance lifestyle for the current and future residents of Downtown. The strategic initiative’s Third Pillar studies the many ways in which Downtown Houston can serve as the standard of urban livability by focusing on three objectives:

to provide a holistic set of services that build community for residents, workers and visitors;

to grow a residential population to make an all-hours, vibrant Downtown; and

to support strong neighboring communities that complement Downtown and each other.

To delve deeper into this subject, we turn to Xavier Peña, Vice President of Finance and General Council, Houston Endowment, and Chairman of the Downtown Redevelopment Authority. 

Q: Why is planning so important?
A: Planning gives an opportunity for people to come together and share ideas to understand what’s important individually and collectively. It enables us to think through how individual ideas can form a great plan that everyone can buy into. 

Q: How would you describe living in Downtown Houston?
A: Residents enjoy a great urban lifestyle in Downtown Houston with options for entertainment, a thriving restaurant scene, green space and sports facilities. We have a lot more choices for living in Downtown Houston, more than we had five years ago. Those choices enhance people’s idea of how they visualize living in the city.

Q: Why would someone want to move into the city?
A: There’s a real interest in walkability. There aren’t other parts of Houston with so many amenities — restaurants, entertainment, access to the arts and sports — in a walkable environment.

Q: What’s missing in order to attract more people to live in Downtown Houston?
A: We’ve made great strides in terms of amenities in Downtown, but I think we can always have more to retail.

We can also enhance our workforce housing by making it more affordable to those in certain income brackets. Statistics show that the average residential property in Downtown is geared toward someone who earns approximately $100,000 annually. There are many more people that work Downtown that don’t fall in that category. Thinking about that segment of the population is extremely important as we move into the future.  

Q: How would you accommodate that population?
A: We need to think what that means for developers and what incentives we can offer so that this type of housing has a place in Downtown Houston. It’s complicated, but it’s essential.

Q: What steps can Downtown take to connect and strengthen neighboring communities?
A: There are natural barriers that exist between Downtown Houston and other surrounding areas. The Pierce Elevated divides Downtown and Midtown. The George R. Brown Convention Center and I-69 is a barrier between Downtown and EaDo. There’s a perception that that there’s a lack of access to those areas, and we counteract that by doing a lot with the streets that connect those areas to bring those communities together.

That can be accomplished, for example, by bringing awareness to Greenlink and through increased transportation. 

Q: How we can make downtown safer?
A: We’ve learned that when you activate street level activity, you create a safer environment for all. As we think through adding retail, restaurants and other types of entertainment options, we need to think about how to also add public areas so more people feel included to be outside. Safety, and a feeling of safety, will follow.

Q: How can Downtown Houston enhance healthy activities and active living?
A: When we enhance our green spaces, active living follows — weather it be hanging out at a park or going on a walk. People are eager for that type of activity, we just need to provide areas that will accommodate it.

How to Make Downtown Houston the Premiere Business Destination in the Region?

 

How to Make Downtown Houston the Premiere Business Destination in the Region? 

The second pillar of Plan Downtown aims to build on the strength and diversity of existing businesses, enhance competitive advantages that serve the energy sector and beyond, and invest in Downtown’s appeal to attract new business activity to the district as well as the region.

How is this accomplished?  To tackle this question, we enlist the expertise of Elissa Hoagland Izmailyan, Principal of HR&A Advisors, a consulting firm providing services in real estate, economic development, and program design and implementation.

Q: What’s remarkable about Downtown Houston’s business center?

A: For any downtown area, you have to evaluate its strengths as a reflection of the region. Houston is the fastest growing job market in the country — the most vibrant, the most international, one of the best talent bases in the country.

So much of what’s special about Downtown is what’s special about Houston. It’s the center of, and the gateway to, the region. It’s the only business district in Houston where you’re likely to rub elbows with your counterparts on the street. There’s a real community of leaders — public, private and civic — who are shaping the future.

Q: What improvements would you suggest to strengthen business activity? What’s missing? 

A: It’s not so much what’s missing, but what do we need more of. Downtown Houston already has so many of the assets that businesses of the future are seeking, which is why they’re already here.

What we hear from the more than 150,000 workers who have chosen to be Downtown is that they love the walkability, restaurants, parks and transit. They want more of the same. And what businesses of the future want is more of the same.

Q: How can Downtown Houston attract more business and diversify its commerce?

A: Making people aware of all of Downtown’s opportunities and options. I was introduced to Houston from the outside in, like most people are when they come to work here. My first meeting in Houston was in the Galleria, then in Greenspoint. I slowly worked my way into Downtown. It took a couple years for me to get to know the Downtown community.

I think when outsiders come to Houston they see Downtown as the urban core they might have left in New York, London or Portland. However, it’s a slower process of introducing or reintroducing the Downtown community to them.

Q: Describe the ideal workspace for the future workforce: What will this look like and how can Downtown Houston accommodate it?

A: There are two changes: A change in office space, and a change in the fabric we create between the offices.

Within office space, you see the square foot per employee going down quite precipitously across the country in all industries. There are a few reasons for that. We’re automating a lot of the routines, the analytical and administrative tasks that no longer require people to sit in cubicles and file. Instead, we work together and collaborate more. In workspaces, we’re seeing more collaborative configurations and less individual areas.

That same ethos needs to extend out into the broader Downtown. What we need is less community within a building and more between buildings and public spaces to create a social network that connects us. 

As we get back to how can Downtown grow and attract the businesses of the future, it’s about incubating now the businesses that will be big in 30 years and providing spaces that can support them. 

 Q: What additional services and amenities does Downtown Houston need to strengthen the appeal for business to move into the area?

A: I recently had a very interesting conversation with a number of business leaders after asking that question. They all said yes, we need more restaurants, stores, gyms and daycare centers. But we won’t get any of that until we get more residents.

Of course there’s more that we could, should and will provide to grow business activity in Downtown Houston, but the first step is to broaden our community outside of the office, supporting the argument that visitation isn’t only for tourists. Regional residents are here not only for a day.

People who are moving to Houston and choose to be Downtown instead of somewhere else are building that community over time. So while we need more supportive services for businesses, those same services are needed for residents. 

So there’s a chicken or egg argument regarding amenities and who’s using them. 

 

How to make Downtown the greatest place to be?

The discussions around Plan Downtown focus on four pillars. The first, how to make Downtown Houston the greatest place to be, delves into how to energize connections between centers of activity, what attractions need to be developed and how to position Downtown as an authentic, no-planning leisure destination. Mike Waterman, president of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau and executive vice president of Houston First, discusses this and more in this interview.

 

Q: What are you most proud of about Downtown Houston?
A: For Houston First, that’s Avenida Houston — three years in the making. We had the opportunity to unveil it during the Super Bowl, which was magical. We had 1.3 million people experience the whole area, and the reviews were spectacular.

 

Q: Why was it so important to develop this area?
A: The George R. Brown Convention Center really didn’t have a front door. The eight-lane bus access road made sense when there wasn’t as much activity, when Discovery Green wasn’t there. Turning this into six lanes of pedestrian friendly space, plus four restaurants and hotels is a game changer for Houston and Discovery Green. There are 12 restaurants within a block of the GRB that weren’t there four months ago. That’s an amazing asset for the city, residents and visitors.

 

Q: Talk about ways that different areas of Downtown can be connected and
energized. How is this achieved?
A: There are pockets of Houston that have unique characteristics. Still, they need to be connected. EaDo is a classic example of an area that’s up and coming. But the freeway is a barrier. Do we light it? Paint it? How do we make the barrier go away or become an attractor rather than a detractor? METRORail has achieved connecting EaDo to Downtown Houston, but there’s more we can do. If we think about all the pockets in and around Downtown such as Market Square Park, Theater District, Museum District, Avenida Houston and Midtown, all of these can be connected through programming or ease of access. It would make the city more vibrant.
Someone told me that Houston was designed by engineers — its grid pattern is very efficient and it makes a lot of sense. Our job now is to add some character back in so there’s ease of moving from one area into another — from Market Square Park to the Theater District to Buffalo Bayou Park and the bayou down to Discovery Green.

 

Q: What new attractions would you like to see in Downtown and why?
A: We’re working on opportunities to program and activate the city, primarily
around Discovery Green. Festivals are a great way to achieve this. Think about the Fountains of Bellagio in Las Vegas, the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Sydney Opera House. All these landmarks have created a gathering place that’s of wide interest. Houston is ripe for a destination like this as well. What if it were a lighting, pyrotechnics, 3D spectacle that activated the area around GRB? Something authentic to Houston. It would give another reason for people to come to Downtown Houston.

 

Q: Why should Downtown be a no-planning destination? A place where people can come without an agenda and find lots of things to do.
A: I think it’s extremely important. Downtown Houston is seen already as the place to do business. The leisure piece is newer in our history and evolution. In New York and Chicago, for example, you can visit without a plan and find infinite things to do. In Houston, we have more work to do on that front.

 

Q: Name buildings, areas or landmarks that you feel are being underutilized: How would you activate them?
A: The Cheek Neal Coffee Building in Eado is beautiful and ripe with opportunity. I’d love to see it turn into a farmers market. The JP Morgan Chase Building, where we have an observatory (or had it), has been closed to the public for a variety of reasons. Most cities have some sort of place where you can get a bird’s eye view of the city that attracts tourists and visitors. Houston doesn’t have that. Sam Houston Park is another diamond in the rough. Much like GRB, it doesn’t have a front door. The historic homes are really fun and interesting, but I think programming and activations could really liven the space.

Downtown Houston is Listening

How does one begin to understand how people experience a neighborhood or community? Ask questions— trust that people will answer.

Plan Downtown kicks off its public engagement phase with the launch of an interactive online tool that encourages anyone who visits Houston’s city center to give feedback about his or her experience. The digital survey, My Downtown, seeks to understand the lifestyle patterns of all types of people who visit the city. Designed by Boston-based design firm Sasaki, My Downtown leads users through guided mapping activities to understand key destinations (where people spend time in Downtown for nightlife, dining, arts, recreation, events and shopping) as well as transportation habits (where they park, walk, drive, take transit and bike).

“The idea comes from the concepts of itineraries and personas,” Sasaki Associate Brad Barnett says. “What does ‘a day in the life’ in Downtown Houston look like?”

As the data is collected, the information will be used to map habits and patterns. Are there common corridors that need more infrastructure support? How do drivers and cyclists enter Downtown? Where do people spend their time? Which areas already see heavy use, and which are brimming with potential? What can Plan Downtown address to better support all these activities?

While there isn’t a magic number of people who respond, what the Plan Downtown team hopes for is a range of responses from people who experience Downtown Houston in different ways. That includes current residents whether they work Downtown or elsewhere, commuters who work Downtown, guests who visit often or occasionally for leisure activities or out-of-town guests who attend professional conferences or sporting events.

How do you experience Downtown Houston? Tell us by using My Downtown.

What’s Next Downtown?

Once an underutilized, work-driven central core that had seen its better days, Downtown has again become the heartbeat of the Bayou City and the region. Buzzing with development of all kinds— new hotels, restaurant rows, luxury residential projects and convenient public transportation options — the city center didn’t get to where it is today by happenstance.

“Thirteen years have gone by since Downtown’s last comprehensive plan, and we’re made tremendous progress since then,” said Bob Eury, Executive Director of the Houston Downtown Management District (Downtown District). “Now it’s time for us to take a fresh look at what lies ahead and prepare for the future. Can Houston adapt to driverless cars, a sharing economy, collaborative work environments and work-life integration? How can we better prepare Downtown Houston for the next few decades?”

With that in mind, the Downtown District has launched Plan Downtown, a 20-year vision plan that will outline recommendations for short, middle and long-range planning, development and design within and around Downtown.

While Downtown has established itself as a destination for working, living and recreation, Plan Downtown will recommend how it can continue to be a relevant and welcoming gathering place for all Houstonians.
Throughout the spring and early summer, the project team will lead a series of leadership group meetings, planning stakeholder workshops, topical small group discussions and public workshops. In addition, the public will be invited to participate in planning efforts by website and text-based visioning exercises.
Mark your calendars for the first public meetings scheduled for April 12.