The Inner-Inner Loop

Rendering of Downtown Houston by Plan Downtown
Rendering courtesy of Plan Downtown

Earlier this month, Downtown officials and partner organizations released a comprehensive plan for the continual revitalization of Houston’s urban core.  “Plan Downtown” provides a road map for improving the city center over the next twenty years and projects a bold vision for what Downtown could look like when the Bayou City celebrates its bicentennial on August 30, 2036.

Predictably, the plan ticks off most of the right boxes when it comes to contemporary urban development priorities, which, it should be noted, could change quite a bit between now and 2036 (just yesterday, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett acknowledged that the failure to re-purpose the abandoned Katy rail line for commuter rail use when the Katy Freeway was expanded was, in hindsight, a “glaring mistake”).  Green space is reclaimed.  Transportation is diversified.  Wonky made-up phrases like “walkability,” “active frontage,” and “smart wayfinding” are thrown around with abandon.  While the plan touches on basically every aspect of life in Downtown, a few of its proposals/predictions stand out as potentially having the most transformative impact.

The Green Loop

Rendering of Green Loop by Plan Downtown
Rendering courtesy of Plan Downtown

If any idea set forth in the plan promises to become the ultimate symbol of Downtown’s resurgence, it is the five-mile Green Loop, “a neighborhood connecting transportation and recreation circuit, with public space and adjacent development on all edges of Downtown.”  The Green Loop would essentially outline the perimeter of Downtown with a system of trails, parks, and public spaces that would link adjacent neighborhoods as well as serve as a gateway into the city’s bayous and broader trail system.  Not only would the Green Loop provide much needed public space to Houstonians who live or work Downtown, it would incentive more pedestrian-friendly building fronts along its edges, a trend that could have a ripple effect throughout the whole area.  Above all, it would give Downtown denizens the claim to the haughtiest of geographical vanity titles:  Inner-Inner-Loopers.

Highways Giving Way to Parks

Rendering of Highway Realignment by Plan Downtown
Rendering courtesy of Plan Downtown

The Green Loop would not be possible without the extensive highway reconfiguration that will result from the North Houston Highway Improvement Project (NHHIP).  The NHHIP raises the possibility of at least two very unique opportunities to reclaim land for park use.  As a result of the realignment of I-45 to the east side of downtown along US-59, the elevated section of I-45 that runs along the west and south, known as the Pierce Elevated, will be decommissioned.  Instead of tearing it down, at least one group proposes re-purposing it as the Pierce Sky Park, à la the High Line in New York.  The NHHIP also floats the idea of constructing a cap park over a lowered portion of US-59 fronting the George R. Brown Convention Center and surrounding area, à la Klyde Warren Park in Dallas.  Such a park would provide connectivity between the Convention Center and the Downtown stadiums while also serving as a bridge between Downtown and EaDo.  Plan Downtown embraces both of these park prospects, calling on leaders to “[e]valuate the options for preserving a portion of the Pierce Elevated, potentially incorporating retail or recreation uses above and below the decommissioned highway,” and to “[d]evelop the highway cap as a pedestrian first, multi-use recreational and civic assembly place.”

Autonomous Vehicles

Finally, the plan is decisively bullish on the future of autonomous vehicles and their potential to radically transform how Houstonians make their way through and around Downtown.  Not only does the plan envision dedicated driverless transit lanes and requisite technology upgrades, it even flirts with the idea that “[t]he ability of vehicles to speak with each other may limit the need for traffic signals.”

Rendering of Autonomous Vehicles by Plan Downtown
Rendering courtesy of Plan Downtown

Perhaps most promising is the impact the plan projects autonomous vehicles will have on Downtown’s parking requirements.  “What is certain is that the demand for parking, especially in areas with high land values, is likely to reduce in the future,” the plan boldly declares.  “Downtown should strive to actively manage and limit new parking within Downtown . . . and begin examining existing parking structures that may be converted to other uses.”

As a whole, Plan Downtown paints a picture of a vibrant Downtown Houston, that, if implemented, would be the envy of every Sun Belt city.  If there is one inconvenient truth hovering beneath the surface, it is the fact that Downtown office vacancy rates remain high as the city continues to recover from the oil bust, suggesting that the demand for such bold leaps forward might not reach a critical mass for some time.  But the plan’s primary purpose is to inspire, and businesses considering a Downtown move should embrace it as a template for what is possible.  If Downtown in 2036 looks anything like the plan envisions it will, companies that have flocked to greener pastures in recent years might find themselves having an Ed Emmett moment.

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