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Houston: Envisioning a Livable City


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The study by Powers Brown Architecture took three groupings of downtown land and investigated several models for configuration of high-density housing. The High-Rise, Mixed-Use Development (1) is centered around Main Street. The High-Rise, High-Density Development (2) is just west of the George R. Brown Convention Center. The Low-Rise, High-Density Development (3) is clustered on the south side of the Toyota Center.


High-Rise, Mixed-Use


High-Rise, High-Density





The elevations show different schemes for structures

in the High-Rise, High-Density Development adjacent to

the George R. Brown Convention Center.

Envisioning a Livable City

by Stephen Sharpe

The idea of living in downtown Houston is no longer a joke.

In fact, the potential for residential development in the Central Business District has completely altered predictions for downtown over the next 20 years.

This much is clear: the era of newer, taller office towers is over. The new vision for downtown foresees high-density pockets of high-rise and mid-rise housing developments occupied by 20,000 residents by 2025.

The 2000 U.S. Census brought the future into focus. For the first time, as demonstrated by the latest federal statistics, the population inside Loop 610 grew at a higher percentage rate than the population outside the loop during the 1990s. Though surprising to many, those figures verified a trend that Houston's development community already was following. Release of the 2000 Census prompted the Houston Downtown Management District (better known as the Downtown District) to commission a survey in 2003 to update statistics from 1993 and 1998 on how Houstonians perceived the downtown area. The 2003 survey indicated that 16,400 housing units could be sold or leased in downtown and the area just to the south called Midtown. While that represented the potential for a significant upswing from the current population of 2,500 residents, the survey's findings also sent a clear message to stakeholders that the inner city was unprepared for what appeared to be Houston's next chapter.

Despite the many recent improvements and additions to downtown - including the initial 7.5-mile line of a sleek light rail transit system, a $62 million streetscape project, a 40,000-seat baseball stadium, a 1,200-room convention center hotel, and a two-venue performing arts center - much more work remained before Houston's inner city could be truly livable. (Many of those projects, completed in the last two years, grew out of ideas that emerged a decade ago from the "Designing for Change" program that teamed AIA Houston with the Downtown District.) Houston's expected evolution would require infrastructure upgrades to handle high-density residential development, as well as quality-of-life enhancements such as parks, schools, retail, and services. And with the downtown's extremely limited stock of historic buildings already converted for residential use, the need for new residential buildings was obvious.

To begin envisioning how residential development could fit into the existing urban matrix, the development community (under the auspices of Central Houston, a nonprofit coalition of businesses interested in maintaining a thriving downtown) put together six task forces and a steering committee to plot a course for the future. Guy Hagstette, AIA, an executive with Central Houston, coordinated the effort, which included the Urban Form and Urban Design Task Force. One of the members of that task force is Jeffrey Brown, AIA, a principal with Powers Brown Architecture. Brown's firm eventually was hired by Central Houston and three associated groups to undertake a series of studies to determine possible configurations for high-density, multi-structure residential developments in three areas within the CBD. Parameters varied widely for each of the three developments, but all shared some of the same requirements, such as access to public spaces, adequate parking, and proximity to mass transit. Of course, development costs would have to be minimized to ensure that those Houstonians who wanted to live downtown could afford the rent or the mortgage. As Hagstette said recently, "The challenge is getting the right product at the right price."

The study of the nine-block area west of the George R. Brown Convention Center explores different land uses, including how to incorporate an existing, privately owned greenspace located directly in front of the convention center. Brown's firm developed several potential configurations, with each preserving views west toward the center of downtown. This aspect of the project is anticipated to create 3,000 to 5,000 residential units (about 1,100 sf, with two bedrooms) in several high-rise buildings, perhaps some as tall as 40 stories. This segment of downtown is expected to be linked to other parts of downtown , as well as to the rest of the city, by a future light rail line.

Low-Rise, High-Density

Located south of the convention center and the Toyota Center basketball arena, the architects have amassed eight blocks on either side of Pease Street. The biggest challenge to residential developers is the relatively remote site, which is not included in any future plans for light rail. The low-rise structures would be limited a height of 75 feet, allowing for buildings as tall as eight floors. The number of potential residential units is 2,500 (also about 1,100 sf).

High-Rise, Multi-Use

The 12-blocks on either side of Main Street at the southern end of downtown is different in that it mixes residential with offices and other types of spaces. The proposed scheme includes three or four high-rise buildings along with other mid-rise structures. The total number of residential units is 3,500. The light rail link already is in place and the neighborhood is served by two existing Metro Light Rail stations.

Rather than calling his firm's project a master plan, Brown prefers the term "a framework of development scenarios" to describe the study of aggregating blocks of private and public land into three distinct areas with specific uses. "For us the real issue became the ability of each pattern to stimulate or accommodate the variability of real market conditions," says Brown, underscoring that the study had less to do with aesthetics than efficient land us and incentives for development. The main consideration, he says, is the long-term economic viability of the future developments and the residual effects on downtown as an interconnected community.

The overarching objective of the work of the six task forces, according to Hagstette, is to plan far enough ahead for Houston - with the fourth largest population in the U.S. - to remain competitive in the international marketplace. "For Houston as a whole it has to have an urban lifestyle to compete globally," Hagstette says. The new paradigm for all U.S. cities is urban residential, he says, and Houston has set its 2050 goal at 20,000 urban residents, which city leaders consider the necessary number to sustain retail and other downtown amenities. The work so far has produced critical results - light rail, a thriving theater district, two sports arenas, the convention center hotel - that allows Houston to take the next step forward. "The vision is more exciting than what we've already done, " Hagstette says. "Now we're creating a city."


Richardson Place


Gable Street Landing

Focus on Quality of Life

Creating a livable city involves more than developing residential blocks. The future inhabitants of downtown Houston will desire a quality of life much the same as their neighbors enjoy beyond Loop 610. Recent improvements and plans for more improvements in the near future to enhance to the downtown experience.

A $62 million streetscape project in a 90-block area stretching across the north end of downtown was completed last year that altered sidewalks to make them more pedestrian friendly, as well as adding many new on-street parking spaces. The Cotswold Project, designed by Rey de la Reza Architects, also added numerous landscaping and public art features to the street scheme that extends from Buffalo Bayou to Minute Maid Park. With water as one of the project's themes, artists created 12 fountains--eight along Preston Avenue and four on Congress Street. Sidewalks were widened to make room for the fountains, with the largest measuring 14 feet tall. Another major improvement project is intended to make Buffalo Bayou into an urban amenity. In 2002, the nonprofit Buffalo Bayou Partnership produced a master plan for 10 miles of the neglected urban waterway that is hoped to help achieve that goal.

The master plan envisions a mixed-use neighborhood at downtown's East End. Richardson Place (above) is planned to provide opportunities for varying densities of low-impact residential development flanking a wide, tree-lined pedestrian mall.

Gable Street Landing is planned as a major new entertainment district center and northern terminus to the Crawford Street "Super Boulevard." The project provides an inviting link between Buffalo Bayou's waterfront and the district around the George R. Brown Convention Center.

Another downtown project is the North Canal, which will be designed to accommodate caf

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It's already happening. I was in downtown Houston yesterday to attend a ballet at the Wortham Center.

For 20 years the area on the east side of US59 (across from the Convention Center) was a slum. Drug addicts and prostitues wobbled up and down the streets. Rotten old wood-frame houses with litter and rusty cars strewn about the yards were mixed with 1950's era industrial development.

To propose the idea that some day people would actually desire to live there would cause any Houstonian to laugh in your face.

It's amazing. The old houses are being bulldozed. The warehouses are being converted to lofts. New condos are going up.

My theory is that the commute from the affordable suburbs finally got so bad that people are starting to reclaim downtown just to avoid fighting the freeways every day.

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