Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Championing Downtown Houston

I moved to Houston almost three years ago, and since then I've spent most of my time in Downtown Houston. It's where I work and regularly recreate. In just less than three years there has been tremendous change. I know, the beginnings of that change were in motion long before I moved to Houston, but it is with excitement that we are seeing those changes come to fruition. Downtown development doesn't happen at the speed of light in most cities, but it does happen pretty fast here in Houston. (For a full list of priorities for Downtown Houston, see this presentation from Central Houston from January, 2015).

A city may have many areas of commerce, but traditional downtown centers give a city an identity. It's usually where the city's tallest buildings are, so it establishes iconic skylines. Downtown districts are normally the hub of commerce and arts, law, politics and governance. Over time, these characteristics may change. Downtown districts lose major sports teams and their facilities to the suburbs. Collections, much like the Texas Medical Center, need more space for their growing work, so they find refuge on the fringes. In this way many cities become polycentric. Houston is arguably one of the most famous examples of a polycentric city, featuring the Texas Medical Center, Uptown, Greenspoint and Greenway Plaza. But, if I'm like many other visitors to large cities, I want to first see a city's downtown district, not a satellite district. Downtowns may not be as important as they were perceived in the past, but I'd contend that they're still the most important district of a city.

I recently came across "CBD Today", a 1964 publication from the City of Houston's City Planning Department. The inside cover featured an interesting quote from Charles Abrams, the famous urbanist, lawyer, professor and public housing advocate. Abrams said "A city's life depends upon whether its heart continues functioning. The heart of a city is its downtown...The cities with pulsating downtowns are cities which thrive. Those without them are due to slow into oblivion."

For a while, this seemed like what was happening in Houston. But that is no longer the case. There is clearly a desire for a traditional thriving downtown in Houston. (There were so many more interesting plans and analyses in the 1964 CBD Today publication. I may simply post more of those pages at a later date.) We are by no means ready to compete with the thriving downtowns of New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago, but the desire is there. We recognize that we can no longer have a downtown filled with parking garages and business towers.

A METRO light rail car conducting its "burn in" at the soon to open Green Line and Purple Line Theater District station
We're near the completion of additional light rail lines (although it's a few months later than originally planned by METRO). We've got a bunch of new towers. Even new residential towers. And, some more residential mid-rises being built. There have been new hotels that have opened, and those that are being built. Houston will even have its own cycletrack on Lamar. Let's not also forget the numerous new restaurants and bars in Downtown Houston. The success of the bars in the 300 block of Main Street has probably come as a surprise to some. But it shouldn't be a surprise that many of Houston's new residents want a walkable urbanism, especially to the enjoy social scence of the city. (See here for a more comprehensive list of development projects in Downtown Houston.)

Downtown might even become recognized by residents as an actual neighborhood. Downtown Houston even won Neighborhood of the Year 2014 on Swamplot. Most likely think of Downtown as a district, much like the Medical Center or the Galleria, and rightfully so. But make no mistake, more people want to live near centers of activity, so that is where housing is being built. Even Uptown Houston and The Galleria, known primarily for its shopping selection, has seen new residential towers and an increase in the amount of housing.

1111 Rusk, the former Texaco Building, will be home to 309 apartment units

Patrick Jankowski, Senior Vice President of Research for the Greater Houston Partnership recently remarked that, "We're actually following a fairly typical pattern taking place in other cities. While downtown isn't there yet, it's moving toward having the full package of amenities to fully support residential living downtown. Anyone who thinks they need to leave Houston because they prefer an inner-city/high-rise lifestyle should wait a few years. Downtown Houston is almost there."

Houston has seen a growth in millennials relocating from other parts of the country taking advantage of Houston's job growth. As downtown users change, preferences in design and use change, especially as new Houstonians relocate from other cities. We are seeing that sentiment with millennials across the country, desiring to live in what are perceived as more authentic urban environments, many in contrast to their suburban upbringing. As Bill Fulton chronicled yesterday in Governing, Houston is "moving from sprawl to city".

I want to be a champion for Downtown Houston, and so do many other young professionals who spend their time downtown. It will be important for younger professionals and users to have a voice in Downtown Houston's continued development, not only for the growing share of millennials in Downtown Houston, but for empty-nesters desiring a more urban lifestyle, for a future generation of families, and for all who work, live and visit Downtown Houston.