Downtown


by David Theis

For downtown Houston, Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004 was the best of times, and the worst of times. But mainly the best. On the minus-side, the late-1990s boom in the Market Square area bar and restaurant scene had ended, done in by the street demolition and construction that preceded the opening of the Red Metrorail line, itself a bright spot to be sure. Sophisticated and exciting restaurants like Tasca and Zula had shuttered after three-to-five-year runs, while the nationally recognized tapas restaurant Solero had been converted into a dance club, where calamar en su tinta had been replaced on tabletops by the high heels of dancers.

In fact, the new light rail was carrying more club goers than foodies to Downtown—and now some of the partiers had to be patted down for weapons before entering their clubs. The rougher crowd that was coming in for the clubs made Downtown a no-go zone for most others. So, the rebuilt streets were beautiful (especially Main Street with its paving bricks and its newly cozy proportions), the light rail was beautiful, but the scene had gotten ugly.

But that was okay, people told themselves in early January of 2004, because the Super Bowl was coming to the rescue. By the end of January the Downtown streets would once again teem with life, surely even more vividly than before.

This prediction proved to be true. The streets were three deep with revelers. Large stages with hi-definition screens—a bit of a novelty in 2004—and superb sound systems featuring local and national bands lined Main Street, with each performer putting on a tremendous show.

Food and drink were everywhere, including in some bars that today we’d label as “pop-ups;” they were just there for the Super Bowl. The exuberance along Main Street was free to the general public, but other events either cost noteworthy sums to get inside, or were invitation only. The Playboy Party, held in The Corinthian, was described by one dazzled national scribe as “the most glorious, mind-blowing bacchanal in recorded sports history.” Paris Hilton was spotted making the rounds. This frenzy surrounding the 2004 Super Bowl was as glamourous, or at least TMZ-worthy, an event as Houston had hosted in decades. (Houston’s first Super Bowl, in 1974, was a relatively low-key affair.)

Visitors and ordinary Houstonians were having a grand, exhilarating time. Locals would bump into friends at Main and Prairie, exchange looks and phrases of amazement at the scene, and then say—over and over again—“Downtown will never be the same.” It would never go back, in other words, to being as British novelist Martin Amis described Houston in his essay on the making of Robocop 2 (which was filmed here): “The main (Downtown) precincts are deserted after 6pm — for this is a modern city, and no one is seriously expected to live in it. You work in it.”

Except, of course, Downtown did fall back asleep. Within hours, it seemed, of Janet Jackson’s baring of her breast during the halftime show, the scene began to wither and die. Most celebrities had moved on before kickoff, of course, and the bars that didn’t close immediately after the game reverted to being danger zones. Downtown seemed closed for most business, and maybe this time it would be for good, new light rail and all.

Except, of course, Downtown wasn’t dead—not by a long shot, and Super Bowl is here again. And this time Downtown Houston is seeing just about the best of times, period.

What’s different this time around? Almost everything, says Downtown District Executive Director Bob Eury. “There was a quickening before the last (Super Bowl). The same thing is happening now, but it’s not Super Bowl driven. It’s driven by the Downtown economy.”

Jones Plaza

This sentiment is widely echoed. Now Downtown is real and self-sustaining, thanks to waves of infrastructure investment and development. The rebirth of Downtown began in 2008 when civic leaders joined forces to convert 11-plus acres of surface parking lots into Discovery Green, a very active, (as in highly programmed), park located across the street from the George R. Brown Convention Center. An estimated 1.5 million annual visitors are drawn to Discovery Green to view its public art, enjoy its concerts, shop at its flea markets, play on its playground, and relax on its green space. (Disclosure: the writer is married to the programming director at Discovery Green.) The public’s overwhelming embrace of the park started a chain reaction of development. Developer Marvy Fingers built his One Park Place, a 37-story, 340-unit apartment tower across from the park. It was both the first new housing built in Downtown in many decades, and an immediate success, reaching high occupancy rates almost right away.

One Park Place was followed by the development of several office towers. To stimulate more residential development, and to make Downtown into an actual neighborhood, in 2012 the City of Houston established the Downtown Living Initiative, a tax incentive program that saved developers up to $15,000 on each individual housing unit built, up to a limit of 2,500 units—which was quickly reached. As a result, numerous multi-family projects are underway in previously residentially challenged Downtown. Eury says that total units available have risen from 2,600 (before the incentive) to 4,000 today, with 2,260 more units in the works, in a total of eight projects.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance—and novelty—of Downtown residential in Houston. Developer Finger says of the previous Downtown, “At five p.m. you could shoot a cannon and not hit anyone.”

Novelty is an apt word here because until fairly recently, native Houstonians seldom thought about setting foot Downtown, much less living there. Barry Mandel, President and Park Director of Discovery Green, Houstonian by birth and resident of One Park Place, says, “I’m a fourth-generation Houstonian. We were told never to go Downtown. Sometimes we would park in the underground parking of some arts venue and go up to see a show, but that was it. The fact that I’m living and working Downtown amazes me sometimes.”

Marvy Finger has a similar thought. He grew up a few miles away, and would ride his bike Downtown to attend one of the movie palaces that used to thrive here. He’d seen the theaters and most of the retail be lost to suburban development, and says “If you’d told me you were going to build on the east side of Main Street I’d have thought you were crazy.” But now, in addition to One Park Place, he’s building apartments a few blocks further north, across the street from Minute Maid Park.

As impressive as it is, the new residential development is spread out over a considerable area (the east side of Downtown, near Discovery Green and the convention center; around Market Square Park to the northwest, and also in the southern edge of Downtown), and by itself won’t create a 24-hour neighborhood, except perhaps in small pockets.

But, at times at least, even more people will be staying Downtown for short visits than living here, thanks to an impressive wave of hotel development. As recently as 2000, there were only 1,800 rooms in four hotels Downtown. With the addition of the 1,200-room Hilton Americas (itself a Super Bowl-deadlined project in 2003), the room count went up to 4,000-plus. Today, thanks to the recent opening of several hotels, that number will reach over 8,000 when the 1,000-room Marriot Marquis (which, like the Hilton Americas, is a connected via skybridge to the George R. Brown Convention Center) opens in late 2016. So between residents and guests, some 20,000 people may be staying Downtown at any given moment.

There will be plenty to lure these folks out onto the neighborhood’s streets, sidewalks, and green spaces, especially during Super Bowl. Inside the gated (but free) Super Bowl Live Fan Fest area east of Main Street, temporary stages will feature local and national recording artists. Discovery Green itself, which has been described as “ground zero” for free Super Bowl-related events, will offer Future Flight, a NASA–created Virtual Reality ride (apparently the first VR ride anywhere) which gives riders a taste of space travel, and then, after an actual 90-foot drop, deposits them virtually at NRG Stadium. Besides the Super Bowl events, Discovery Green features an ice-skating rink and two illuminated art installations; Firmament, a canopy glowing with LED lights created by Burning Man artist Christopher Schardt, and Enchanted Promenade, an allee of tall, glowing (by night, at least, but also impressive during the day) peonies sculpted by French light art and design studio TILT. (Discovery Green will also host several national television broadcasts, including a 10-day visit from Fox Sports.)

Downtown has two other important green spaces. Market Square Park lies in the historic heart of the city, and was home to the original city hall. The park was redesigned and developed in 2010 to include a café and programmed events, and has been packed ever since. Market Square Park has helped generate its own, mostly residential development, with two apartment towers nearing completion.

Beginning at the western edge of Downtown, 160-acre Buffalo Bayou Park is the biggest green space of all. Buffalo Bayou is the waterway that caused Houston’s founders, Augustus and John Kirby Allen, to locate the city that they had imagined as “the great commercial emporium of Texas” where they did. The spot where the Allen brothers descended from the small boat that had carried them inland from Galveston is marked by Allen’s Landing, a few blocks northeast of Market Square Park. But it’s Buffalo Bayou Park, a bit farther west, where visitors can profitably get in a few hours of relaxation. The park stretches for 2.3 miles, but the eastern edge is in easy walking distance of Downtown, and is in fact virtually part of the neighborhood. This area of the park, known as the Water Works section, features perhaps Houston’s most appealing children’s play area, brilliant views of the skyline, and, most impressively, The Cistern, a long-forgotten underground water storage area that has been opened to the public. (You’ll need a reservation to enter, and you can make one at buffalobayou.org.)

Again, all of this green space, which has completely transformed Downtown, has been either created or significantly redeveloped since the 2004 Super Bowl.

All this exploring will give you both an appetite and a thirst. The Market Square area has several restaurants, including relative newbie La Fisheria (213 Milam Street), venerable Market Square Bar & Grill (311 Travis Street), Latin-inflected Batanga (908 Congress Avenue), with an outdoor patio so big and inviting it feels like an Italian plaza, and Conservatory (1010 Prairie Street), the beautifully designed underground dining hall and beer garden. (Here’s hoping that the Downtown branch of the excellent Local Foods is open by Super Bowl.) There are many other choices as well, including bustling and soulful Frank’s Pizza (417 Travis Street), a social leveler which feels like the beating heart of Downtown.

The Market Square area is also home to many of the bars that the World’s Most Interesting Men and Women would want to drink at. Taking advantage of the little that’s left of 19th Century Houston, well-established local bar owners have created amusing, soulful boîtes, including OKRA Charity Saloon (924 Congress Avenue), Moving Sidewalk (306 Main Street), The Nightingale Room (308 Main Street), and world-class mescaleria The Pastry War (310 Main Street). (Look up the origin of the name to see how deeply the owners have burrowed into Mexican history.)

The Honeymoon

The Convention Center District is also home to an impressive number of restaurants—a statement that wouldn’t have been true just months ago. In a wildly successful effort to become a more inviting space, the George R. Brown Convention Center has converted some the street lanes from Avenida de las Americas into a public plaza, and installed several restaurants, including a branch of the popular Grotto Italian restaurant, a deli, Bud’s Pitmaster BBQ, and Kulture, the new restaurant from Marcus Davis, owner of the locally renowned, African American-themed Breakfast Klub. Just steps away, the new Marriot Marquis features an offering by one of the city’s most celebrated restaurateurs, Mexican maestro Hugo Ortega’s Xochi. The hotel will also feature the two-story Biggio’s Sports Bar, connected to Astros Hall of Famer Craig Biggio, and a total of six new restaurants.

And that’s not all, as they say. In the One Park Place Building, facing Discovery Green, much lauded French Chef Philippe Verpiand has just opened the beautiful but casual Brasserie du Parc. One Park Place is also home to the city’s United Nations of food, Phoenicia Specialty Foods, with its always hopping Mkt Bar—truly a mandatory stop for anyone looking to experience the city’s international flare and vitality.


No matter how hard we try, man and woman don’t live on bread and booze alone, so the city’s internationally recognized performing arts organizations hold court in the Theater District in the northwest quadrant of Downtown. Until January 28th, Houston Grand Opera will be reprising the opera that put HGO on the world map, Nixon In China. During the Super Bowl, the Alley Theater will offer a new play by Sarah Burgess, Dry Powder. Other organizations will offer Downtown performances as well.

Ask a longtime observer what visitors will think of Downtown changes (especially when compared to the last Super Bowl), and you’ll get variations on the same answer. “Downtown is a neighborhood now that has grown organically,” says Discovery Green’s Barry Mandel. Resident Barbara Friedman says, “Last time Super Bowl was a show. We have more substance now; it’s not just for the event.” Central Houston’s Bob Eury muses that people “will come thinking that Houston is on its knees” because of the drop in oil prices, but they’ll find “the vitality of the city super impressive.”

But long-time residents Dan Tidwell and Jamie Mize, former owners of Treebeards restaurant (still a good Market Square lunch option), make the most eloquent and personal claim. Over recent decades, they have followed area developments as closely as anyone. Sitting in Honeymoon, perhaps the most all-around useful of the Market Square places because it’s a combination of bar, coffee house, and restaurant, Mize says, “There’s a whole list of things that have happened since the last Super Bowl that make Downtown feel like a neighborhood. When you see people from the Houston Ballet School (in the Theater District) walking over to Frank’s for lunch, you know it’s not just the people in the clubs (or the office towers) who are here now.”

Tidwell agrees. “People ask where we’re going to retire. We say, ‘we’re staying here. What we’ve worked for for 40 years is happening now.”

 


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