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photo: Morris Malakoff

Infamously zoning-averse and unsentimental about its past, Houston’s reputation has long been one of urban sprawl, strip malls and car culture. But profound changes have taken place in recent years, and nowhere is that more apparent than in Downtown Houston, a microcosm for the revival in the spirit of a modern 21st American city that surprises residents and visitors alike with its ability to reinvent itself.

Once an underutilized, work-driven central core that had seen its better days, Downtown has once again become the heartbeat of the Bayou City and the region. Buzzing with development of all kinds— new hotels, restaurant rows, luxury residential projects and convenient public transportation options — the city center didn’t get to where it is today by happenstance.

This transformation is thanks, in part, to the Houston Downtown Development Framework, a plan completed in 2004 to guide public policies, private investments, civic improvements and individual actions.

A major civic green space adjacent to the George R. Brown Convention Center was among the recommendations in that plan. Today, Discovery Green — a dynamic, 12-acre urban park — is one of the city’s greatest treasures and a nationally acknowledged success.  

Another key recommendation from the 2004 plan was an increase in residential development. The Downtown Living Initiative, a tax incentive program created in 2012, has drawn more than 18 new residential projects totaling more than 5,000 units that will be added to the market in the coming years. The plan recommended active sidewalks and engaging buildings, which have come to fruition with restaurants, bars and coffee shops, alongside world class performing arts, entertainment and sports.   

“Thirteen years have gone by since Downtown’s last comprehensive plan, and we’re made tremendous progress since then,” said Bob Eury, Executive Director of the Houston Downtown Management District (Downtown District). “Now it’s time for us to take a fresh look at what lies ahead and prepare for the future. Can Houston adapt to driverless cars, a sharing economy, collaborative work environments and work-life integration? How can we better prepare Downtown Houston for the next few decades?”

With that in mind, the Downtown District has launched Plan Downtown, a 20-year vision plan that will outline recommendations for short, middle and long-range planning, development and design within and around Downtown.

According to Lonnie Hoogeboom, Director of Design & Development for the Downtown District, Plan Downtown will examine previous planning efforts, current projects and future plans.

“We’ve seen many of the old plan’s objectives fulfilled and its recommendation’s largely implemented and adopted,” Hoogeboom says. “The new plan will set the stage for Downtown development moving forward.”

Downtown is home to more than 150,000 workers, a growing residential population and some of the city’s biggest attractions and institutions; Plan Downtown will examine how the central core can leverage a changing role and continue to compete economically on a regional, national and global level. Adjacent areas like East Downtown, Greater East End, Greater Northside and Midtown are emerging residential and commercial centers. Plan Downtown will examine how public realm and transportation strategies, including the proposed TxDOT alterations to Interstate Highways 45, 10 and 69, can further foster neighborhood connectivity.

While Downtown has established itself as a destination for working, living and recreation, Plan Downtown will recommend how can it continue to be a relevant and welcoming gathering place for all Houstonians.

Asakura Robinson, a planning and urban design firm with offices in Houston, has been tapped to draft Plan Downtown alongside city stakeholders and influential committees. The consultant team includes Sasaki, a national leader in urban planning, design and landscape architecture; Traffic Engineers, Inc. (TEI), Texas’ oldest traffic engineering specialty firm, and also located in Downtown’s Historic Market Square neighborhood; and the Dallas office of HR&A Advisors, an industry-leading urban development consulting firm.

“The process of planning is extremely important because it engages and compels a diverse group of people to agree on a collective vision moving forward into the future,” said Eury.

With funding from the Downtown District and Houston First Corporation, the 17-member leadership group is comprised of representatives from the City of Houston, Harris County, Central Houston, Downtown Redevelopment Authority / TIRZ No. 3, Buffalo Bayou Partnership and Theater District Houston, along with representatives from East Downtown, Greater East End, Greater Northside and Midtown. A 160-member steering committee of elected officials, community leaders and area residents will also provide input and frame plan recommendations.

“Downtown has made incredible strides in the past ten years with developments such as Discovery Green and, most recently, the transformation of the area around the George R. Brown Convention Center into a vibrant and active pedestrian-oriented experience," said David Mincberg, chairman of Houston First Corporation. “With Plan Downtown we can continue to look more holistically at the future of our city center—what has worked in the past and what can be accomplished in the future.”

Throughout the spring and early summer, the project team will lead a series of leadership group meetings, planning stakeholder workshops, topical small group discussions and public workshops. In addition to these public workshops, which take place, the public is invited to participate in planning efforts by website or text-based visioning exercises.

The final plan builds on the momentum created by Plan Houston, the city’s first General Plan, adopted by City Council in the fall of 2015, and will reinforce its core strategies: spend money wisely; grow responsibly; nurture safe and healthy neighborhoods; connect people and places; support a global economy; sustain quality infrastructure; champion learning; foster an affordable city; protect and conserve our resources; communicate clearly and with transparency; partner with others, public and private; and celebrate what’s uniquely Houston.

“For the first time in Houston’s history, we now have a consensus on our vision and goals for the community,” says Pat Walsh, Director of Planning & Development for the City of Houston. “Plan Houston identifies the strategies that Houston as a city should undertake to achieve those visions and goals, and Plan Downtown is a great example of a next step: converting the principles, goals and strategies of Plan Houston into reality.”

While Wash recognizes Downtown’s strengths —it’s an economic powerhouse with a growing complement of amenities, from arts and culture to culinary to outdoor spaces — he also sees an opportunity to better connect these elements to create a more vibrant Downtown, at all hours of the day and night.

The success of the region is tied to the success of Downtown.

“Having a vibrant Downtown is like having a healthy heart. We want to keep our heart pumping strong,” Walsh  adds. “We need to see Downtown continue to be dynamic, continue to grow and continue to be an exciting and welcoming place for everyone.”

Plan Downtown will be presented in late 2017, outlining a clear, detailed and adaptable roadmap that identifies stakeholders’ areas of responsibility, designates a phasing strategy and pinpoints funding opportunities for projects and concepts.

Stay updated on Plan Downtown efforts and opportunities for public input by visiting www.plandowntownhou.com.

The success of the region is tied to the success of Downtown.
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