With Jones Plaza And Bagby Street Redevelopment, Theater District Kicks Off Major Master Plan
The revitalization of Houston’s Theater District is picking up pace with the announcement of significant redevelopment plans for Jones Plaza and imminent plans to overhaul Bagby Street.
Houston First finalized a Theater District 10-year master plan in 2015 to activate the west side of Downtown with an “immersive arts and culture environment where the vitality of the performing and visual arts spill into the streets, sidewalks and public spaces.” Transforming Jones Plaza into a centerpiece of Downtown is step one.
“The Theater District is feeling a bit on the tired side in its public offerings, so a lot of people are saying ‘get it fixed,’” Downtown Redevelopment Authority President Bob Eury said.
It is a step that may have been accelerated by Hurricane Harvey. Houston First Senior Vice President of Regional Product Development Roksan Okan said there was discussion about pausing plans for Jones Plaza after the storm, but Theater District stakeholders and the partnership between the city of Houston, Houston First and the Downtown Redevelopment Authority wanted to move forward on something that would not just repair what was damaged, but give people hope for an even better future.
“There will be life after Harvey, and a project like this could help lift the spirits of the community,” Okan said. “We’re looking to bring robust daily life back to Jones Plaza and lift up this part of Downtown.”
Jones Plaza is a central location in the Theater District, surrounded by iconic architecture. But it has not fulfilled its potential — people think of Jones Plaza as a building rather than a park, Eury said. Rios Clementi Hale Studios is leading redesign of the 1.5-acre space, which is expected to reopen in November 2020. It will include lots of green space and shade features, a 4K SF dining facility, moveable seating and tables, a water element and an informal, flexible performance space. The food services portion took inspiration from the Grove and Niko Niko’s, Eury said, and will feature a transparent building skin with indoor and outdoor seating, a shared kitchen facility and restrooms, and private event spaces that can be rented to the public.
Right now Jones Plaza is essentially an amphitheater, Eury said. It is important to retain its performance arts character and flexibility for events because that is part of what makes this plaza unique, Okan said, but few events need that type of facility, and it isn’t very welcoming to the public. Eury said the aim is create a space where everyone is comfortable and that does not need perpetual programming.
“Our design concept, called Urban Choreography, celebrates this dual role which Jones Plaza will play in Downtown Houston,” RCHS Principal-in-Charge Nate Cormier said in a statement. “It must be an inviting green oasis that contributes to the daily life of downtown residents, workers and visitors — and at the same time, it must flexibly accommodate a wide range of cultural programming and special events."
The main priorities are to transform the primarily concrete and hard finishes plaza into something very green, and to make it accessible from all corners. That is difficult because of the underground garage, which requires part of the plaza to be elevated. But some sections will be lowered, because a cardinal rule of public space is to make as much of it street level as possible, Eury said.
Funding was one big hurdle to overcome — Harvey has stressed financial resources, including at Houston First, Okan said. Within the Theater District, Wortham Theater and some garages are still working through repairs and resiliency projects. Every project going forward will focus on resiliency to some degree, Eury said. The Jones Plaza/Bagby revitalization will coordinate with improvements to the Civic Center Garage to handle flooding better, for example.
Private funding was necessary, and Jim Crane and the Astros’ Foundation provided $1M toward the park. Crane is passionate about revitalizing Downtown. The DRA committed $5M toward the total price tag of $20M.
The Bagby Street Corridor project is following closely behind Jones Plaza’s redevelopment, and Eury said it has the potential to make Bagby a signature street. It will make the stretch from Clay to Franklin mixed-use and mixed-transport with a bike lane and more pedestrian-friendly sidewalks. The goal is to create a vibrant people place like is happening on Avenida de las Americas, Okan said. Bagby Street, the western edge of Downtown’s grid, is unique, Eury said. There is very little through traffic, and each block can be a little different.
The DRA just finished an eight-month design programming process on Bagby and will move forward with design. No timeline has been set, but Eury said mid-2019 is probably the earliest construction would begin. The project is complicated by the tunnel system underneath and will go slow to be as minimally disruptive as possible.
This is just the beginning of a West Downtown transformation, Okan said. An overhaul of Tranquility Park may follow at some point, and the city is looking at how it could reactivate or improve its public facilities in the area.