The Houston Downtown Management District (Downtown District) has announced Plan Downtown: a 20-year vision that will outline recommendations for development within and around the city’s core. Led by Asakura Robinson with Sasaki Associates, Traffic Engineers, Inc., and HR&A Advisors, the plan aims to build on recent improvements that make downtown a better place to live, work, and play, as well as a destination that will attract more international businesses and tourists. It will address mobility, congestion, and connectivity issues and promote sustainable development and networked public green space. “Downtown has come an incredible way with changes compounding year over year and plan over plan,” says Zakcq Lockrem, principal at Asakura Robinson.
The last time Downtown District implemented a comprehensive plan was 2004. The new plan will address the way downtown has evolved since then and anticipate large infrastructural changes in the pipeline, such as TxDOT’s proposed reroute of I-45. “This is a major planning effort with a 13-year gap,” says Lonnie Hoogeboom, Downtown District’s director of planning, design, and development. “A lot of planning has happened on a localized level, but not at this level. How do we think about the edges and pull it together?”
Downtown District is made up of a 30-member board of directors whose primary mission is to leverage public funds with private resources to accelerate improvements above and beyond the level provided by local government or voluntary efforts. Past projects include a South Downtown Plan; improvements to the George R. Brown Convention Center with Houston First; a retail task force; efforts for Super Bowl LI; and various capital projects with METRO for Main Street, Allen Parkway, downtown wayfinding, and a downtown living initiative.
Some of Plan Downtown’s initiatives come out of those outlined in Plan Houston — the 2015 goal and vision statement that is the city’s first general plan. Patrick Walsh, director of the City of Houston’s planning and development department, has been working closely with Downtown District. “Plan Houston was a high-level plan that laid out broad principles — goals and strategies — for making Houston a better city,” he says. “Plan Downtown, like many of our master plans, will serve as one of the implementation arms of Plan Houston, describing how to take those principles and turn them into reality. I think of downtown Houston in many senses as the heartbeat of the region, and Plan Downtown is critical to keeping downtown vital and healthy — and therefore critical to the region’s success, as well. Downtown Houston is one of the few places in the region where real walkable urbanism is possible: grid pattern of streets, a wealth of pedestrian opportunities, and increasingly diverse land uses, including restaurants, entertainment, and more residential areas. How can we build on these successes to make downtown into the kind of attractive, vibrant, world-class place that will draw in people and companies from around the world?”
The project team is currently working on a draft plan and anticipates completion by late fall 2017. To further flesh out the draft, they will lead a series of group meetings, steering committee workshops, topical small group discussions, and public workshops. The public will also be invited to participate in planning efforts by website and text-based visioning exercises. “Plan Downtown gives us a chance to weave into the planning process with public input,” says Bob Eury, executive director of Downtown District. “The timing is really perfect, in terms of capturing this opportunity with major infrastructure proposals.”
Downtown District is partnering with Houston First Corporation; Central Houston, Inc.; Downtown Redevelopment Authority/Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) No.3; Buffalo Bayou Partnership; City of Houston; Harris County; and Theater District Houston. Neighboring management districts — East Downtown, Greater East End, Greater Northside, Midtown, and a 150-member steering committee — are also informing the planning efforts.
Florence Tang, Assoc. AIA, is an architectural designer, manager, and journalist based in Houston.