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.