Houston’s NRG Park Area Is Underdeveloped. Its Leader Is Ready To Do Something About It
This year’s NCAA Basketball Final Four and Championship games are expected to pack NRG Stadium full of about 70,000 screaming fans for multiple nights starting this weekend, and three Taylor Swift shows in April are set to draw just as many.
NRG Park isn’t exactly a venue in search of revival. Its tenants, the Houston Texans and the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, have loyal fan bases, with the latter event pulling in 2.5 million attendees per year. And future plans, like NRG Stadium hosting the World Cup games in 2026 over a 39-day stretch expected to generate more than $1B in economic impact for the city, show it is serving its purpose.
But there isn’t much reason to linger around the stadium before or after shows. The area doesn’t offer much by way of upscale and inviting restaurants, bars, hotels or other commercial development. That means the city could be leaving money on the table.
“It’s prime real estate, and it’s underdeveloped,” NRG Park CEO and Executive Director Ryan Walsh said.
That is something he hopes to change in the next few years.
Local leaders say Houston has no problem attracting people to attend events at NRG Park, but garnering significant commercial development would likely first require more residential activity, or there would need to be a concerted effort from government agencies, developers and stakeholders.
Walsh said conversations to revamp the complex are in the early stages and are being timed around the Houston Texans’ and Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo's leases expiring in 2032.
“We're in a unique position because people come to us no matter what,” Walsh said. “How do we get them to come early, come to the event and stay afterwards? Hang out for a little bit? That's a conversation that's happening now.”
Walsh also leads the Harris County Sports & Convention Corp., which acts on behalf of Harris County in managing, operating, maintaining and developing NRG Park. The discussions are beginning with what the Houston Texans and the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo want in the future, which includes growth.
NRG Park has a lot to offer, including 26,000 parking spaces and four facilities — NRG Center, NRG Arena, NRG Stadium and NRG Astrodome — within its 350-acre complex. NRG Stadium has a seating capacity of 72,220. It’s in Houston’s urban core, a few miles south of the bustling Texas Medical Center. It’s accessible by public transit.
But visitors to the park for events like the Final Four hardly see the best of what Houston has to offer. It's surrounded by acres upon acres of parking. The ride approaching the park offers a view of strip malls packed with fast-casual restaurants, small businesses and financial services, car dealerships, traffic cones and budget-friendly hotels. The lack of density can work in favor of redevelopment.
“The opportunity is fantastic,” Walsh said. “It's a blank slate for us.”
One area of immediate need is hotel supply. The Final Four Games starting Saturday will fill tens of thousands of rooms in the city, but few will be in the same neighborhood as the games. The hotels the NCAA is offering travel packages to are in the Uptown/Galleria area and Downtown, all about 10 miles away from NRG Park.
Houston First CEO Michael Heckman said there is opportunity in the area that hasn’t been seized. Houston First is a local government corporation that leads the effort to promote Houston, including by drawing tourism.
The organization makes similar hotel recommendations for other events at NRG Park, like the Offshore Technology Conference that typically draws more than 50,000 attendees each May.
“We would drive folks to where our hotels are, and our hotels are primarily in the Downtown and Galleria area,” Heckman said. “When people come into town, they like to have proximity to the venue. But more importantly, they want proximity to amenities, benefits and walkability. Restaurants, shopping, those are the types of things that they're typically going to want.”
Making the NRG Park area an attractive place to stay would take more than just building hotels, he said.
“I think that there needs to be a really comprehensive plan to develop that area,” Heckman said. “What does that look like?”
Groups like South Main Alliance’s Main Street Coalition are also working to answer the question, Walsh said. The area is within the Greater Houston Zone Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone, which can be used to attract commercial development.
Houston First will look at options with its 10-year destination development plan for the entire metropolitan area, Heckman said. Research will begin soon and it hopes to have the plan finished this year, he said.
The plan will be used to make Houston a more attractive city and region for visitors and businesses alike, he said. It will explore what kind of destination Houston wants to be five, 10 and 20 years from now.
Sports Business Journal ranked Houston 29th on a 2023 list of best cities for sports business, the lowest of any Texas city to make the list. The ranking method used a number of factors to measure across three categories: opportunity, stability and interviews with industry experts.
“The more compact the zone, generally the better,” a marketing executive told Sports Business Journal.
The ranking is hard for Heckman to believe, considering Houston’s four professional sports teams and annual events like the Houston Marathon, the Houston Open and the Texas Bowl, he said.
“We are a great sports city. We don't agree with that ranking,” Heckman said.
Some of it was based on newness of facilities, which is something Houston does not have, he said. NRG Stadium opened as Reliant Stadium in 2002. It was the first NFL stadium to have a retractable roof.
“Twenty, 25 years ago, we built the most state-of-the-art facilities anywhere in the country. And now we're a little bit past that,” Heckman said. “We need to be able to look and say, what's the future of these facilities moving forward?”
There are several “entertainment districts,” with residences, restaurants and other businesses near sports stadiums around the country, including one in Dallas near AT&T stadium, Walsh said. Dallas came in first on Sports Business Journal’s ranking.
Los Angeles has "ambitious plans" to develop the area around SoFi Stadium with residential, office buildings and more, he said.
“So the trend is to create these entertainment districts around the sports and entertainment complexes,” he said. “For us, I think it's a phenomenal opportunity to learn lessons from the others that have done this around the country, but also to make it uniquely Houston.”
Nothing is off the table for future renovations and development near the park, including a parking garage, Walsh said. Though the park has 26,000 parking spaces, the number one complaint Walsh gets is about traffic and parking, he said.
“We're totally sensitive to the fact that these neighborhoods and these apartments around us are incredibly impacted during rodeo or a Texans game or Final Four, for instance,” Walsh said. “So that's part of our conversations, how can we make this better, not just the Houston community at large, but our local community?”
NRG Park and its tenants want to benefit the community, he said. That could potentially come from adding green space, or maybe an educational component.
“There's a lot of really great opportunity. What that opportunity is has yet to be determined,” Walsh said. “But it's certainly part of the conversation that we've started.”
Development is happening in the area, albeit not directly next to the park. There has been a significant increase in multifamily development south of the 610 Loop on and near Fannin Street, within a mile or two of the stadium complex, Gwendolyn Tillotson, deputy director of the Houston Mayor’s Office of Economic Development, said in a statement to Bisnow.
There is more than $1B of development underway at the Texas Medical Center just north of NRG Park. Helix Park, a 37-acre campus with healthcare institutions, a hotel and conference center, a residential tower, retail, restaurants and a double-helix green space, will bring more people to the area for work, and they’ll want to live nearby, Tillotson said. TMC expects the project to have a $5.4B economic impact.
TMC has also announced plans to develop TMC BioPort, which would span 500 acres south of the NRG Park, outside of the 610 Loop, and create up to 100,000 jobs. No timeline has been revealed for that project.
“Density is a huge factor that will influence commercial development,” Tillotson said. “As more people move into the NRG Park area, it will become more attractive to commercial developers.”
As far as why that development hasn’t happened in the past, Walsh said that’s a good question.
“And I really don't know the answer to that,” he said.
Tillotson said residential migration and a reduction in tourism activity after the closure of the Astrodome contributed to decline in the area. She said she feels confident that a revitalization of commercial development is likely to occur, though, as the area continues to attract new residential development.
Houston is so large, there are several areas even inside the 610 Loop that are underdeveloped, Walsh said. The area around NRG Park is “really ripe for development,” he said.
Give it five years, he said.
“I think you're gonna see a lot of change in this area, that's going to really be great change,” Walsh said.
CORRECTION, MARCH 28, 12:13 P.M. CT: A previous version of this story contained incomplete information about the NRG Park leases expiring in 2032. The article has been updated.