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After Harvey, Houston has a new plan for its downtown

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The new blueprint includes a new 5-mile park encircling the city center.

Plan Downtown envisions a more walkable, dense city center in Houston, Texas. This rendering of Pierce Street includes the Green Loop and a “tree allee” of canopy trees along the route.
All images via Downtown District

A proposed new downtown masterplan for Houston unveiled Friday includes new walkability guidelines, smart city technology, and a slate of transportation and parkway improvements aimed at rapidly expanding the city’s core.

Plan Downtown: Converging Culture, Lifestyle & Commerce, the result of a planning process overseen by the Downtown District, seeks to build 12,000 new residential units downtown, as well as accompanying transportation, commercial, and park infrastructure, to support a population of 30,000. Currently, 7,500 live in the city center. In an editorial, The Houston Chronicle said it’s “a vision worth pursuing.”

One of the main features of the proposal is the Green Loop, a five-mile ring of parkland and bicycle corridors that would encircle the greater downtown area and connect it with emerging neighborhoods such as Midtown and Freedman's Town. The idea had already been proposed, but Plan Downtown helped to codify and integrate the park concept with other proposals in play, including a 24-mile, $7 billion highway realignment project underway by the Texas Department of Transportation.

“Houston’s downtown is already multimodal and very walkable,” says Bob Eury, Executive Director of the Downtown District. “We want to improve that in a lot of places.”

The comprehensive development plan looks at the future of downtown Houston through 2036, the city’s bicentennial. Drafted over the last 18 months by designers, stakeholders, and city residents, the document envisions a greener, more resilient, and more walkable downtown, attempting to link together attractions that can often seem disparate in the spread-out city center. Proposals include a series of Downtown Design Guidelines for safer, more multimodal streets, including additional wayfinding, green walls, and tree planting, as well as the establishment of an Innovation Center for entrepreneurship.

Eury says the plan’s release, delayed due to the Super Bowl earlier this year, was well underway before Harvey hit the Gulf Coast, highlighting the ways sprawl has heightened the impact of such storms. But, since Harvey was far from the first storm to hit the region in the last decades, the plan already includes extensive thinking about making the city more resilient, including adding more park space and storm water detention areas to downtown.

The proposed Green Loop would encircle the city’s downtown, and connect it with Buffalo Bayou Park.

The proposal build off the city’s 2012 Downtown Living Initiative, which helped spur more residential construction in the city’s core, with 18 new projects bringing in 5,500 units, Eury says (The Houston Chronicle noted that the plan was criticized for favoring wealthier renters). But that’s just the beginning; the drive to create more walkable streets, he hopes, means thousands more residents will come in the next few decades.

The planning effort was overseen by Asakura Robinson, and featured consultants from Sasaki. Numerous local organizations contributed, including the city, Harris County, the Downtown District, Buffalo Bayou Partnership and Theater District Houston.

A vision of North Canal in Houston