Downtown Houston is a dynamic place with constant changes, from new retail openings, office re-locations and amenities that impact business, residents and visitors. Since 1995, the Downtown District has facilitated many of the public and private projects that have transformed downtown. The District has set important goals with quality of life as the underlying theme: building a lasting constituency downtown; recruiting investors, retailers and tenants while retaining those already downtown; and making downtown clean, safe and attractive.
Below is a summary of developments, openings and announcements in downtown from October 2010 – April 2011. This is the first of a twice-yearly round-up of activity in and around the downtown area and the impact new projects will have on the local community.
Downtown Public Safety Guides
In January, the Houston Downtown Management District unveiled the Downtown Public Safety Guide Program. With a focus on both safety and hospitality solutions, the Downtown Public Safety Guides monitor high traffic areas downtown to help deter crime, interact with the homeless and assist the public. To date, Downtown Public Safety Guides have assisted more than 6,000 downtown patrons.
Airport Direct (Pilot Program)
Changes to the Airport Direct program were announced in January. Airport Direct will now transport passengers from downtown Houston to IAH Terminal C for a one-way fee of $4.50 (initially $15 one-way). The service runs every 30 minutes, seven days a week from 4:50 a.m. – 7:45 p.m. The bus will serve hotels including Hilton Americas and Hyatt Regency, as well as the Airport Direct Passenger Plaza on Pierce @ Dallas and MetroRail’s Main Street Square station. This is a pilot program that will run until July of this year; at that time the program will be evaluated by METRO management regarding ongoing service.
Retail Master Plan
The Downtown District is collaborating with LA-based AECOM to develop a plan to promote and build-upon downtown’s existing retail core that includes department store anchor Macy’s and mixed-use developments, Houston Pavilions and The Shops at Houston Center. Pedestrians are at the forefront of planning the public realm with a focus on a lively and well-connected street environment. There is a multi-phase implementation plan with the immediate attention on Macy’s and surrounding retail opportunities in the Main Street Square area.
Downtown and EaDo Livable Centers Study
This study covers an 11-block x 16-block area bounded by Pease, St. Charles, Commerce and Austin. Home to major destinations such as the George R. Brown Convention Center, Minute Maid Park, Toyota Center and Discovery Green, the study area has experienced recent office, residential, retail and entertainment development. Future development includes the new Houston Dynamo Stadium, METRO light rail transit and new public spaces. In concert with H-GAC, the Houston Downtown Management District and East Downtown Management District are leading this Livable Centers study to create a vibrant destination that welcomes office workers, residents, regional visitors and convention-goers.
Downtown Parking Task Force
The Downtown District has formed a parking task force made up of a 20-person group representing various downtown stakeholder groups: shopping, entertainment, dining, residential, transportation, park space, major event venues and office. The goal is to make recommendations to the City of Houston and other transit organizations regarding visitor-friendly parking solutions and/or to create a parking program that will better serve visitors that are coming downtown, specifically in the evenings and weekends.
Hess, which now occupies 500,000 square feet in two downtown buildings, chose to relocate and occupy all of the new, 30-story, 845,000-square-foot building. The name has been changed from Discovery Tower to Hess Tower. The building, which Hess will occupy starting in the summer of 2011, is expected to be LEED Gold certified, complete with wind turbines on top of the building to generate a portion of the building’s electrical requirement. With Hess’ expanded commitment to downtown, its workforce will be located in a highly sustainable office building, have many restaurants in immediate proximity, and be able to walk across the street and enjoy downtown’s 12-acre, $120 million park, Discovery Green.
In February of this year, ground broke on the new, state-of-the-art, open-air stadium designed to host Dynamo games, as well as other sporting events and concerts. The 22,000-seat stadium is slated to open in April 2012 and will be the first soccer-specific stadium in Major League Soccer located in a city’s downtown district. At a cost of $95 million, the stadium is within walking distance of Minute Maid Park, Toyota Center and the convention center, bringing more than 1,000,000 people to the downtown area each year.
Harris County Jury Assembly Room and Transportation Plaza
The new jury assembly room will be built in the area in front of the civil courthouse on what is now a one-square-block surface parking lot. It will be built underground, so the parking lot becomes green space and potential jurors have access to more parking garages and underground access to all the courts. The new jury assembly rooms will increase capacity from 750 to 1,000 people. Easier access to and from courtrooms means that eventually Harris County may be able to have potential jurors arrive at four different times instead of the current two and therefore take up less of their time. The project is expected to be complete in summer of 2011.
The six-story granite and buff brick building encompasses an entire city block on Fannin between Preston and Congress. Built in 1910 at a cost of $500,000, the building originally housed all downtown county offices and all county courts. By the time the 98,000-square-foot courthouse closed for renovation in 2006, it was bursting at the seams, yet housed only a portion of the county's civil courts. The building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, ultimately will serve as the new home the 1st and 14th Texas Courts of Appeal. They currently are housed at South Texas College of Law. Crews already have demolished most interior walls, ceilings, flooring, and mechanical equipment to remove all traces of a 1953 renovation that covered up or obliterated much of the original interior. Now, workers must embark on the painstaking task of restoring the structure to its original appearance, down to the plaster on the walls and the mosaic tile on the floor.
METRO Light Rail
Once complete, the Southeast and East End Lines, between I-45 and US-59 will join the existing Main Street Line to connect residents and visitors from far and wide to business, education and government centers, along with major sporting events, world-class theaters, entertainment venues, hotels, restaurants and more in the heart of the city. Current construction is focusing on utility relocation.
Julia Ideson Library
The new $14 million archival wing for the Houston Metropolitan Research Center (HMRC) was finished and reopened to the public in April 2010 and now renovation/restoration of the historic 1926 Ideson Library is underway. The ceilings in many of the rooms are going from stark white to being painted in their original polychrome colors, the first floor of the north wing is being retrofitted for use as a café and an exhibit hall will be on the second floor to showcase collections of the HMRC and other exhibits. Substantial completion is projected for fall of this year. Total costs for the restoration is approximately $32 million including both public and private funding.
Former Sheraton-Lincoln Hotel
Brookfield Office Properties has bought the 28-story long-vacant former Sheraton-Lincoln Hotel at 711 Polk St. The building has sat vacant for the last 24 years. Brookfield owns the 35-story office building directly to the northeast (at 1201 Louisiana), which has long offered tenants closeup views of the decaying structure. The company has no plans for further development of the site once the building is demolished.
Tellepsen Family Downtown YMCA
After much anticipation, the Tellepsen Downtown YMCA opened in October at 808 Pease. A cornerstone of the downtown Houston community for 125-years, the YMCA recognized the need to grow its facility with the changing needs of its community. As the number of residents and businesses continue to grow in the area, the new state-of-the-art YMCA offers a wide assortment of exercise and wellness options, as well as expanding its commitment to the community with a food and clothing pantry, social and life skills coaching, computer lab, scholarships for Y programs and collaboration with HISD programs.
The transformation of the neighborhood around Discovery Green and The George R. Brown Convention Center continues with the opening of a new Embassy Suites, the first privately developed, full-service hotel built from the ground up in downtown for the past 25 years. The property has 262 two-room suites, 6,000 square-feet of meeting space, a rooftop swimming pool, spa and fitness center, restaurant and a soon-to-open street-level cafe and wine bar. Overlooking Discovery Green, Embassy Suites is an important milestone in a city which has long needed additional hotel rooms to compete for conventions on the national and global level.
BG Group Place
Hines’ cutting-edge, pre-certified Platinum LEED office tower at 811 Main, is a 46-story building with 36 floors of office space, 10 floors of aboveground parking, two levels of below-grade parking, 960,000 square feet of office space and 12,000 square feet of retail space. One unique aspect of the building is a “skygarden” located on the 39th floor. Announced in October 2010, BG Group has leased 164,000 square feet (six floors). The new building, previously named MainPlace, has been renamed BG Group Place, as BG Group plans to relocate its U.S. headquarters to the new building in mid- to late-2011.
Downtown’s "underground" is a system of tunnels 20 feet below Houston's downtown streets and more than six miles long. Having started out years ago as a tunnel between two downtown movie theaters, today it includes restaurants and service retail and connects 95 city blocks. A new connection, the Rusk Tunnel was completed by Hines in late 2010 connecting the North Travis Tunnel to their new BG Group Place building.
A complete residential renovation of the Nabisco Cookie Factory/Purse Co., CityView Lofts is just two-blocks from Minute Maid Stadium. This historical landmark is on the national register and is affordably priced as rental units, a much needed commodity in downtown Houston.
Houston Ballet Center for Dance
The largest professional dance company facility of its kind constructed in the United States, the new Center for Dance allows the Houston Ballet Company to be in the heart of Houston’s Theater District. The sustainable, state-of-the-art, 115,000 square foot facility cost around $46.6 million and allows the company to expand its education and training programs. The six-story facility boasts nine dance studios, a black box dance laboratory for presentations as well as rehearsals, and artistic, administrative and support facilities for Houston Ballet and its Ben Stevenson Academy. The architect for the project was Marshall Strabala, director of design for Gensler. The Center will truly be an international dance center and further secure Houston’s reputation as having a thriving arts community.
RETAIL PROJECTS UNDER CONSTRUCTION
Scott Gertner’s at Houston Pavilions
Announced in December 2010, Scott Gertner’s at Houston Pavilions will host high quality local and national performers on an arena-style stage. Gertner has been a cornerstone of Houston’s jazz community for the past 20 years and his new venue will greatly impact a local initiative to make Houston known as a jazz city. The nearly 12,000 square feet, bi-level venue boasts outdoor space that will include rooftop deck, cabanas, lounge seating and DJs. It will also serve a full dinner menu. Construction is projected to be complete in the fall of this year.
Phoenicia Specialty Foods
Developer Marvy Finger, who built One Park Place – the first luxury residential high rise built in downtown Houston in over 40 years – has leased space to local favorite and nationally recognized Phoenicia Specialty Foods, accentuating downtown residents quality living experience. In addition to the grocery store component, there will be a café, where the menu will include both items from the store, popular dishes from Arpi’s Phoenicia Deli, as well as a line of pizzas. The MKT Bar will offer tapas and wines for happy hour and evening noshing. Additionally, the store itself will carry an array of household goods and paper products, catering to those who live and work in the downtown area. Phoenicia Specialty Foods will open its one-of-a-kind 28,000-square-foot international gourmet food market on the ground floor of One Park Place in the summer of this year.
Live! at Bayou Place
18,000 square feet of Bayou Place’s second level are being converted into a four-club concept known as Live! at Bayou Place; an eclectic collection of entertainment venues with broad appeal. The clubs consist of PBR, a country-western bar; cigar lounge, Chapel Spirits; an '80s and '90s music club called Shark Bar; and a casual hang-out dubbed Lucy's Liquors. The Cordish Companies, Bayou Place’s operator, has worked with the same venue stakeholders at their successful Baltimore and Kansas City developments.
Kelsey Seybold Clinic
Kelsey-Seybold's primary care and specialty physicians group opened in March 2011, occupying 23,000 square feet at a new location at The Shops at Houston Center, one of the largest medical leases in downtown. In addition to physician services, the new clinic has an imaging center including x-ray, mammography and ultrasound, as well as a new pharmacy.
New Ownership of Icon Hotel
The iconic hotel underwent a foreclosure auction in January 2011, with Canyon Johnson Urban Funds of Beverly Hills, Calif., and Centurion purchasing the property for a reported $27 million. The new ownership will implement cosmetic and technological upgrades to the historic 1911 property. A new operator is still to be announced.
Sundance Cinemas, The Cordish Companies and the City of Houston announced on March 31, 2011 that a lease has been signed for the former Angelika center space at Bayou Place located in downtown’s Theater District. Sundance expects the extensive refurbishment work to begin immediately on the eight-screen complex with the target of a November 1, 2011 opening. The Sundance Cinemas Houston will provide the same unique patron experience and success of Sundance's two other theatres, located in San Francisco, California and Madison, Wisconsin. Sundance Cinemas Houston will offer specialized film programming, playing the finest movies for a discerning audience culled from film festivals and the best in general release. The venue will offer drinking and dining choices, all reserved seating, digital stereo sound and presentation, filmmaker screenings and exclusive events, plus free parking for patrons and community events. Construction will begin in early May.
Wilson Building, 500 Fannin
A private partnership has purchased the historic downtown building at the corner of Fannin and Prairie. The 1932 building originally housed the Wilson Stationery & Printing Co. and was most recently owned by Hilcorp Realty. The new owners plan an extensive restoration of the four-story building, which also has a basement, and rent it out to commercial tenants. The developer will have the help of a recently approved historic preservation grant of $888,000 from the Downtown Redevelopment Authority. The building has approximately 30,000-square-feet of space and construction is expected to begin in the next 90 to 120 days.
Holiday Spectacular 2010
The third annual holiday spectacular connects Houstonians to the holiday events taking place around downtown from Thanksgiving through the New Year’s weekend. Two free downtown trolleys connected thousands of patrons to the myriad of retail and entertainment options offered downtown during the holidays. In all, more than 500,000 Houstonians attended downtown events, including theater performances, Mayor’s Holiday Celebration, H-E-B Holiday Parade, Gingerbread Build off at Market Square Park, ice staking at Discovery Green and downtown’s newest event, Gloworama New Year’s Eve.
City Hall Farmers Market
After a successful pilot in October 2010, City Hall now hosts over 40 vendors either side of the reflection pool every Wednesday from 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. Vendors offer products including fresh produce, cheeses, breads, roasted coffees and a variety of prepared meals, whilst patrons are treated to live music and on-site cooking demonstrations. The City Hall Famers Market is one of Mayor Annise Parker’s green initiatives.
NCAA 2011 Men’s Basketball Championship (Final Four)
Houston hosted the NCAA 2011 Final Four in April 2011. The biggest celebration in Houston since the 2004 Super Bowl, the event brought an estimated 70,000 people to Houston bringing over $100 million directly toward the local economy. Houston will be hosting the NCAA 2015 Men’s Basketball South Regional and the NCAA 2016 Men’s Basketball Championship.
The Shell Eco-marathon challenges high school and college student teams from around the world to design, build and test energy efficient vehicles. Celebrate invention, innovation and eco-efficiency as the streets around Discovery Green become a test course for tomorrow's vehicles. This is the second year the eco-marathon has been held in Houston.