Downtown Texas vs. Downtown Jacksonville - Part 1: Houston

September 1, 2006 8 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Taking a look at various urban redevelopment strategies from the State of Texas.

Houston, TX

2005 city population: 2,016,582 (4th largest US city)
2005 metro population: 5,280,077 (7th largest US metro)

City Description

Houston, the largest city in Texas, was established in 1836 by two New York realtors and brothers, John Kirby Allen and Augustus Chapman Allen. By 1860, the city began to emerge as a railroad hub for the export of cotton. In 1901, the same year Jacksonville burned to the ground, oil was discovered in nearby Beaumont, which rapidly transformed the hamlet into a major US city in just a few short years. Today, Houston has grown to become a diverse cultural destination as well as a major business hub, with over 20 Fortune 500 companies calling the region home.

Learning from Houston

While the Houston metro is certainly progressive and one of the fastest growing cities in the country, it unfortunately falls short when looking to its downtown. Even though Jacksonville will likely not benefit by modeling its downtown after Houston, the city still serves as a great example for many things to do and to avoid.

1. Bus Rapid Transit (instead of parallel parking spaces downtown).

This city claims to have the best bus system in the county, and it should, considering it was the only metro with over 5 million residents without any form of rail transit until two years ago. Here, several highways and local roads have bus only lanes, even in downtown, which is something JTA wants to implement along Forsyth and Bay Streets in downtown (eliminating their parallel parking spaces in the process). This has partially contributed to the desolate downtown street level atmosphere with a low number of sidewalk cafes and shops (you can’t blame them; with city buses and their fumes continuously blowing by, along with the lack of sufficient parking taken away from street retail).

2. Rail attracts redevelopment

Throughout Metro Jacksonville’s BRT/Commuter rail study, it was mentioned that a benefit of fixed rail transit is that it attracts redevelopment along its routes. This is clearly evident in Houston. It should come as no surprise that the single downtown street with direct access to the new rail line is also the home to most of downtown’s street level restaurants, retail, lofts, and a budding entertainment district. This advantage of rail transit is something Jacksonville’s leaders definitely need to consider before JTA burns millions of Dead Presidents (dollar bills, cash money, for those not familiar with the movie).

3. Teaching Local History

For its size, Houston’s downtown seems to lack the energy expected from a city with such a huge skyline and dense central business district. Nevertheless, one positive the city has done is attempting to provide a walking history of what was once a vibrant retail center. Several large vacant storefronts have pictures and historical information about the original tenants from an era long gone. While the space may be empty, this at least provides an informative and more attractive image to the passerby, instead of plywood placed over vacant building openings.

4. Downtown Tunnels

It is not a good thing to give city leaders who do not understand urbanism bad ideas for downtown redevelopment. If you want to kill a downtown at street level, then Houston is the best place to take notes. Its strange walking on the street during a weekday lunch hour in a place that makes Jacksonville’s foot traffic resembles Manhattan. The reason: all of the major office buildings are connected to each other by a system of underground tunnels. Once you go down below, you will realize Houston is an anthill, with all the sandwich shops, lunch spots, and foot traffic below street level. This also means that once the workday ends and the tunnels are locked, downtown really resembles a ghost town.

5. Where there’s a Will there’s a way

A major positive of Houston is that when this city puts its mind to it, things get done. After taking a beating by anti-rail forces and facing a lack of state support, the city spent its own money to construct a 7.5-mile starter rail line in time for the 2004 Super Bowl. That move has paid big dividends. Two years later, the line has helped create an entertainment district and loft redevelopment in downtown, as well as along its route which connects downtown to Texas Medical Center, the museum district, Rice University, University of Houston, and Reliant Park.

Downtown Houston Photo Tour

Downtown Houston sports one of the country’s largest downtown skylines


Brooklyn’s redevelopment plans include this type of urban infill


Another solution for affordable housing could include the conversion of older underutilized inner city warehouses into residential uses


Downtown Houston is littered with surface parking and bus only lanes. JTA envisions the same scene for its planned BRT system along Forsyth and Bay Streets


While buses and cars sit in traffic, the Metro train speeds by to its next stop


Post Rice Lofts is one of the latest residential developments to take place along the new rail line.


The new line has also helped create a downtown entertainment district


These signs cover many of the vacant storefronts


Downtown tunnels connect the major office buildings, helping to kill street retail in the process


A Metro Jacksonville Bonus: Galveston, TX

The seawall was constructed after the 1900 hurricane


The Strand is Galveston’s Central Business District


The Tremont Hotel


Maybe we should get rid of our meters for smart meters like this one

Another picture of the Strand

Part 2: Downtown Jacksonville vs. Downtown San Antonio – Coming Soon