Downtown Houston is increasingly a stage for a diverse range of urban activities at all times of the day, rather than simply a destination for working commuters. With the expansion of the public transit system, people from surrounding neighborhoods will have improved access to Downtown jobs, retail, entertainment, and recreational amenities. Substantial amounts of new residential development in Downtown Houston – catalyzed by the Downtown Living Initiative – will create a growing need for amenities that have not typically been provided in the area. However, from on the ground observations and conversations with stakeholders, it is equally clear that the network of streets in the study area is still heavily mono-functional, designed primarily to channel commuters in and out of Downtown during rush hour.
The Southern Downtown/ CBD Public Realm Plan presented a vision for the streets, parks and open spaces of southern Downtown that will support a diverse range of activities, development and neighborhoods. As is common in many urban areas, the network of streets, parks and open spaces that we call the public realm comprises about half of the land of the study area. Building upon previous efforts, the plan is intended to guide future investments and provide a framework for evaluation, that focused on leveraging strategic investments in the public realm as a way of working around Houston’s limited regulatory structures.
A framework of six strategies was developed through the planning process:
- Classify Streets by Mode of Travel
- A variety of street sections throughout the study area will provide the opportunity for each activity center to have a distinctive urban experience. Creating street classifications by travel mode will minimize conflict between modes and improve network legibility. Streets will be designed to ensure better safety and comfort for a primary mode while maintaining their multi-functional nature.
- Design and Program Distinctive Parks and Open Spaces
- Parks and opens spaces serve as common reference points and meeting places for shared experiences. A combination of new parks and retrofitted opens spaces will anchor new development clusters and emerging activity centers. These open spaces will create memorable landmarks that are supportive of surrounding uses and will promote increased activity through design and programming.
- Activate Privately Owned Public Spaces
- Privately owned public spaces area a significant component of the study area. These spaces are publicly accessible, and often seamless with public sidewalks. By adding site furnishings and programming, these plazas can become local landmarks, creating prestige for their owners and tenants, while creating an amenity for employees, residents and visitors.
- Retrofit and Improve Streetwalls
- By retrofitting blocks and streetwalls that are designed primarily for cars and parking, the quality of space along sidewalks can be improved to create an appealing environment for pedestrians where the needs of automobiles have traditionally been prioritized. This strategy includes both design guidelines to increase comfort and aesthetic appeal, as well as ideas for semi permanent retail to create destinations that increase foot traffic until future development is realized.
- Create Key Connections Across Highway Edges
- Addressing the barrier created by major highways at the perimeter of the study area will strengthen connections between southern Downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods. Inviting gateways that encourage residents of the surrounding area to visit Downtown and vice versa will support new activities and create a more vibrant street life.
- Set the Stage for Future Opportunities
- A long-term strategy for the southeastern portion of Downtown Houston must begin with short- and medium-term improvements of underutilitzed blocks. Through site rehabilitation and infrastructure investment, the area can be restored for existing users, where future infill development will create an anchor to connect with and support other activities.
These six strategies seek to understand private sector investments within Southern Downtown and leverage public sector investments to shape the character of the public realm and quality of life for residents, employees and visitors. Small, agile, and cost effective projects will build toward larger investments in streetscapes and open space. This study provides a uniquely replicable framework for downtowns transitioning from business districts to 24 hour destinations.
Location: Houston, TX
Scale: 96 Blocks
Client: Houston Downtown Management District