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Downtown Unveils Bold Bicentennial Vision

For the past 10 years, Downtown Houston has experienced what is arguably the greatest resurgence in the city's history. With $6B invested across a broad mix of urban developments, Downtown's story is changing. With the Downtown Living Initiative in its final stages, what is the next chapter? City officials and local leaders gathered Friday to discuss the next step, Plan Downtown. 

Plan Downtown 2036 Rendering
Plan Downtown 2036 rendering

"Have we done well? Yes. Is now the time to stop? No," Central Houston Executive Director Bob Eury said before the crowd of hundreds at Central Houston's annual luncheon. 

His organization's plan will focus on four broad strokes: making Downtown the best place to live, ensuring Downtown is the premier business and government location, raising the bar of urban livability and promoting innovation through the district.  

Enhance Downtown's Activity Centers And Attractions

Downtown Houston Skyline
Downtown Houston skyline

Building on Downtown’s growing reputation and unique assets, like stadiums, historic buildings, the George R. Brown Convention Center and the Theater District, Downtown Houston will continue to expand its tourism and visitation base. 

Plan Downtown recommends undertaking capital improvements and expansions as recommended in the GRB Convention Center 2025 Master Plan, including the south expo hall expansion. The plan also calls for building an additional 4,000 hotel rooms in Downtown and EaDo to support convention, leisure and business visitation, with a 20-year goal of 12,000 hotel rooms in Downtown. To achieve that, Plan Downtown seeks to add two large convention center hotels, as recommended in the GRB Convention Center 2025 Master Plan, near the eastern corners of the Convention District. Long-term improvements to the highway system east of GRBCC will enable a dynamic pedestrian connection to EaDo. 

On the other side of Downtown, Plan Downtown seeks to advance projects and improvements in the 2016 Houston Theater District Master Plan to create an immersive art and culture environment. The plans also look to continue the bayou's park and trail enhancement eastward. 

Improved Connectivity With A Green Loop

Buffalo Bayou
Buffalo Bayou

Plans are in motion to remove or entrench many of the elevated highways that surround Downtown. What was once an outline of concrete can become a five-mile green loop made up of parks and trails connecting to the surrounding areas. Bound by the Buffalo Bayou to the west and north, the Pierce elevated section to the south and TxDOT's future green space east of GRBCC, the Green Loop is a bold vision for the area. Though the plan offers a vision of what the idea could become, it has few specifics about improvement projects. The plan instead looks to encourage engaging the green loop and Buffalo Bayou architecturally through activated ground floors, fostering an inviting public realm while also ensuring development is resilient to flood events. The green loop will connect Downtown to quickly developing areas like EaDo, Midtown and Freedman's Town, ensuring central Houston remains a hub. 

Walkability As A Cornerstone Of Downtown's Character

Houston Skyline

Downtown's concentration of attractions makes it the most walkable location in the entire metro. However, Downtown’s hot spots are often perceived as disconnected from each other, separated by gaps of uninteresting blocks. Plan Downtown looks to correct that by prioritizing public realm activation and intersection improvements. The plan will develop Downtown design guidelines with developers and stakeholders, creating an ordinance that sets requirements for public and private developments for building ground floors that activate public spaces. The plan will include provisions for sidewalk extensions that shorten the crossing distance for pedestrians and provide a better walking experience. Interactive video screens can provide adaptive wayfinding experiences, providing transit or shopping information, or other data or messages as necessary. Developing strategies for tree planting, green walls, transit shelters and canopy shade structures are also part of the plan. 

The plan has a heavy focus on autonomous vehicles. Streets will require pick-up and drop-off curb zones as single occupancy/driver-operated vehicles become less common. Electric charging stations will also be needed in parking areas. 

Catalyze Downtown's Emerging Neighborhoods

Houston Skyline
Houston skyline

The Downtown Living Initiative has produced residential clusters around Market Square Park, Minute Maid Park and in southern Downtown. The plan calls for 12,000 additional units within Downtown to support the projected population growth from 7,500 to 30,000 in the next 20 years. A signature open space within each residential cluster will define each neighborhood.

A particular aim of the plan is to provide student housing in Downtown to serve the University of Houston, Texas Southern University, Rice University and post-baccalaureate programs in the Texas Medical Center, all accessible by METRORail.

Downtown Innovation District

Downtown Houston Innovation District
Downtown Houston Innovation District

More than 250 early stage software and digital technology companies are already a part of the Downtown innovation community. Downtown is uniquely positioned as the central node of a larger innovation corridor that can leverage partnership advantages with UH-Downtown, Texas Southern University, the University of Houston, Rice University and the Texas Medical Center. A Downtown Innovation District can leverage Downtown’s advantage in the energy sector by encouraging incubator, accelerator and co-working spaces targeted at energy technology, manufacturing technology, alternative energy and energy life cycle companies. 

Central Houston will work with existing Downtown property owners and managers to convert 5% to 10% of Downtown properties into new office spaces with appealing design and flexible layouts for startups and small businesses at affordable and/or protected rents. 

Central Houston 2017 Luncheon
Central Houston 2017 luncheon

Central Houston's vision for Downtown is all-encompassing. With Houston's bicentennial on the horizon in 2036, local leaders think now is the time to invest in the future. 

In the near term, Central Houston will focus on leveraging the future TxDOT highway investments, developing Downtown Design Guidelines, redeveloping the Civic Center and Justice Complex, studying future parking needs and undertaking continued improvements to the convention center. 

Ensuring the future of Downtown will be a citywide effort. The Downtown Living Initiative has shown what the area is capable of. Though plans for the future rarely end up as envisioned, a road map worth pursuing is a good start.