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Downtown Strikes Back!

by Michael Dorsey    March 9, 2022

From Inspired New Green Spaces and A-List Restaurants to Hipster Hangouts and the Return of Everything that Matters, Houston’s Urban Core Comes Roaring Back to Life

Since stopping the world in its tracks two years ago, the pandemic continued to rear its ugly head throughout 2021 with the omicron variant causing on-again, off-again uncertainty for everyone, everywhere. 

Along the way, Houston’s city center took an outsized beating from an unrelenting coronavirus that seemingly wanted to write off our very urban core – even though the area in question is home to everything that the city treasures most. Things like the Houston Astros, Rockets and Dynamo; Houston Grand Opera, Ballet and Symphony; Society for the Performing Arts; Alley Theater, Hobby Center and TUTS; Discovery Green and Market Square Park; plus, all the Fortune 500 Companies that make the world go round. And that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

But fear not, Dear Citizens: the reports of Downtown’s death are greatly exaggerated!

Thanks to the singular vision and Herculean efforts of Central Houston, Inc. (CHI) and its affiliated entities, Houston Downtown Management District (Downtown District) and Downtown Redevelopment Authority – formed decades ago to recalibrate and reboot Downtown into a vibrant neighborhood for playing and staying well after sundown – Houston’s multi-use, multi-dimensional urban core finds itself in the enviable position of bouncing back faster than many of its municipal peers.

From commercial campuses seemingly designed for a post-Covid world and luxury apartments tailormade for urban sophisticates to a bevy of gleaming new parks, infrastructure upgrades and bike lanes connecting all of it, the heartbeat of the city is once again poised for another moment in its evolutionary, albeit circuitous, journey upward.    

Last year, 28 major office leases totaling 750,000 square feet were executed – 11 of those by companies new to Downtown Houston – just as multimillion dollar commercial projects were being fast-tracked at the height of Covid, reflecting overall confidence in the office market as well as Downtown’s continued importance as a regional employment base.

“In some ways, the pandemic has accelerated elements of what would be normal, organic change, and thankfully, many of those changes come in the form of places that better reflect modern tastes,” said CHI President & CEO Kris Larson. “We’re proud to see ongoing investment and believe it positions Downtown Houston to better serve its citizens now and into the future.” 

Brookfield Properties, which owns and manages 11 million square feet of Downtown office space, had already decided to renovate the iconic Houston Center after having just transformed  Allen Center, Heritage Plaza, and Total Plaza campuses with next-generation bells and whistles that just happened to perfectly lend themselves to a post-pandemic environment.

“Houston is one of the Texas markets leading the way as far as return to work goes,” said Travis Overall, Executive Vice President of Brookfield’s Texas Region. “Last year, some of our buildings were already up to 50% occupancy before edging back down because of the omicron variant, but we see those numbers once again reversing themselves this year. People not only miss collaborating, but they also miss the energy of being around their co-workers.”

As if on cue at this writing, Chevron announced that all its Houston employees would return to work at the oil giant’s Downtown headquarters after the Health Department reported in January that the number of Covid cases in Harris County were trending downward. 

For its part, Hines is not only welcoming the first tenants into its shiny new 47-story trophy – Texas Tower – but the company is also putting its money where its mouth is by moving their global headquarters into the 1.2 million-square-foot tower. Boasting three urban gardens, multiple outdoor terraces, health club, library, lounge areas, restaurants, co-working space and dedicated areas for employees to plug in laptops throughout, it should come as no surprise that the architectural wonder is already 50% leased. “If you build great stuff, people want to be a part of it, and we knew we were building a world-class product with Texas Tower,” affirmed Hines’ head honcho for the Southwest Region, Mark Cover. “Taken together, the new assets being delivered in Downtown right now are important for the entire Houston region.”

One of the more surprising developments from 2021 wasn’t so much a single project as it was a symbolic tipping point on the residential front. After many national pundits predicted that people would abandon city centers because of the pandemic, Downtown Houston’s population actually grew by more than 1,100 people from the previous year, which not only defied the doomsday predictions, but it also hit the economically meaningful threshold of 10,000 residents in the process.

That number is expected to surge even higher in 2022 as more than 1,300 housing units come online by year’s end – just the third time in a decade that the housing supply has increased by more than a thousand units in a single year – including Trammell Crow’s 43-story tower on Block 98, Parkside Residences, overlooking Discovery Green as well as Hines’ other massive new project – Brava  – the 46-story modern masterpiece at 414 Milam Street that now holds the title of tallest residential tower in Houston.

For signs that Downtown is revving up for an exciting new chapter in its ongoing renaissance, one need not look further than the huge influx of head-turning projects that have either just been completed or will soon be ready for their close-up. With key recovery indicators now pointing to resiliency in the office, residential and hospitality sectors, the Downtown forecast for 2022 is looking conspicuously sunny. So, turn that frown upside down(town) and take stock in vibrancy and all-that-makes-life-worth-living.  

1. By the Numbers

Downtown Houston is once again bustling with activity, as evidenced by visitation numbers tracked by Central Houston. Last year 42.7 million people visited Downtown, representing a 31% surge in visitors from the year before and a 43% increase in evening and weekend visitors, who undoubtedly made the journey Downtown to discover the diverse mix of entertainment, dining and recreation offerings. From the triumphant return of the performing arts, professional sports and big-name entertainment to forward-thinking outdoor programming at Market Square Park and Discovery Green, Downtown Houston continued to witness a gradual return to life as we love it.  

In keeping with the rest of the post-Covid world, Buffalo Bayou Park witnessed a 10% uptick in visitors last year over pre-pandemic levels as Houstonians took to the great outdoors with gusto. Among those visitors were two unexpected guests seen multiple times late last year in the form of two otters sunning on the banks of the bayou, giving further proof of the extensive conservation and ongoing clean-up efforts of Buffalo Bayou Partnership. With the addition of paved walkways and bike lanes connecting the park from the westside of Downtown to the East End, those numbers will increase even further as greater access to and from Downtown becomes a reality, further reducing vehicular traffic in Houston’s core all the while.

2. Parks and Recreation

Trebly Park (1515 Fannin Street) became Downtown District’s newest green space when it debuted this summer, providing a quality-of-life boost for the growing number of residents who work and play in Southern Downtown. The $9.5 million project was spawned by the huge influx of high-density housing options surrounding Bell, Fannin, Leeland and San Jacinto Streets and fully funded by the Downtown Redevelopment Authority. The ambitious new park will recast the long-time home of a Goodyear tire shop into an urban retreat complete with an artsy playscape, reflection garden, dog park, rotating art installation and center stage designed for inclusive and creative events and happenings, films, live performances and more.  Notably, it will also be home to a second iteration of the locally born, bred and beloved, Tout Suite – the French-inspired café with legions of diehard fans magnetized by a community gathering space with souped up salads, sandwiches, baked goods and great coffee. When it opens in late May, Trebly Park will be fully operated and programmed by Downtown District which has a proven track record making things a whole lot better after turning the long-dormant Market Square Park into one of the most vibrant and visited parks in the entire city.  

The Bagby Street Improvement Project (I-45 to Franklin Street) was conceived and funded by the Downtown Redevelopment Authority to turn Downtown’s western gateway into a “livable street,” breathing new life into an essential corridor complete with dedicated bike lane, wider pedestrian walkways, signature lighting and 79 new trees. The new and greatly improved Bagby Street quietly re-opened in October, connecting the Theater District, City Hall, Houston Public Library and The Heritage Society to no fewer than ten public spaces and parks, including a link to the city’s vast network of greenways via Buffalo Bayou Park. The project’s soft opening was followed in quick succession by the not-so-quiet sound of thousands of people making the trek Downtown to experience the extraordinary Winter Wanderland light installations during the holidays. 

Lynn Wyatt Square for the Performing Arts (600 Louisiana Street) is named for global ambassador and philanthropist, Lynn Wyatt, who kicked in the $10 million needed to fast-track the pet project. With a comparable investment from the Downtown Redevelopment Authority, construction on the square block surrounded by Wortham Center, Jones Hall and Alley Theatre is now well underway and will be home to a street theater, performance lawn and dramatic water feature along with space for a future food and beverage concept when the forward-thinking project opens in late fall with wide-ranging outdoor entertainment and special events. 

3. Downtown Playground

The long-awaited 35th Annual Houston Art Car Parade Weekend will take over Downtown. The Orange Show’s signature event – Houston’s most iconic and beloved annual celebrations – is returning with a robust lineup of events and activations that will celebrate and showcase over 250 mobile masterpieces from across the country and engage the public with opportunities to express their personal artistic vision.

In 2021, the lights came back on in Houston’s beloved Theater District as Houston Grand Opera, Houston Ballet, Houston Symphony, Alley Theatre, Society for the Performing Arts and TUTS all returned to their Downtown digs.  Bouncing back like an expertly executed jeté, Houston Ballet’s annual performance of The Nutcracker sold nearly 68,000 tickets, or 91% of pre-pandemic ticket sales for the wintertime favorite. Springtime showstoppers on the district include perennial favorites Hamilton and Wicked at Hobby Center for the Performing Arts and the Franco Alfano and Giacamo Puccini opera Turnado at Wortham Center. Meanwhile, nationally touted Alley Theater is celebrating its 75th milestone season with the romantic classic, Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility

4. New & Noteworthy

POST Houston – the 555,000-square-foot adaptive re-use project opened to 40,000 visitors at its splashy grand opening and is already a blockbuster hit, drawing thousands of people a day who can’t resist the allure of a five-acre rooftop park and a Tokyo-style food hall – dubbed Post Market – boasting a critically acclaimed roster of 20+ international vendors and counting. The foodie-focused venue is currently getting top billing on Top Chef: Houston, cementing its overnight status as a top destination in Downtown Houston. 

As if that’s not enough, POST Houston also comes with a state-of-the-art live music space, 713 Music Hall, which is drawing some of the world’s biggest names in entertainment to the 5,000-seat theater, including Willie Nelson, Khruangbin and Olivia Rodrigo, when it’s not doubling down as a creative alternative for meetings and private events, offering multi-tiered seating, VIP areas, multiple bars and more. 

Ensconced in a chic upscale setting, Pur Noire (802 Milam Street) was dreamed up by the husband/wife team of Carissa and Kenneth Stephens after they serendipitously purchased a bottle of Pinotage vinted and imported by a company owned by people of color. Fast forward a year later, and the couple’s entrepreneurial-minded passion for oenology was reignited on a trip to a favorite Italian wine region a year later, sparking the idea of The Pur Collection, the couple’s own wine brand that, to date, includes a Petite Syrah-based blend and a Pinot Gris-Sauvignon Blanc-based blend as well as a Tempranillo Rosé.  To accommodate their growing customer base, the Stephens opened a Downtown storefront in January that virtually transports guests to the Italian wine country with its bold green, ruby red and sophisticated black interiors.

New chef-driven concepts continue to dot the Downtown landscape, further reinforcing the neighborhood’s growing reputation as a bona fide dining destination, including Georgia James Tavern (737 Preston Street) by celebrity Chef Chris Shepherd, featuring a much-talked about $22 burger from its wood-fired grill that has already become a major pre-theater draw and neighborhood favorite.

Toro Toro – A new Pan-Latin steak and sushi concept by global chef Richard Sandoval – also recently launched on the 3rd Floor of the completely revamped Four Seasons Hotel Houston (1300 Lamar Street), offering expertly plated dishes like the mezcal-flambéed Tomahawk steak and Spanish octopus.

Bravery Chef Hall (409 Travis Street) continues to attract some of the city’s hottest rising-star culinary talent. After establishing itself as a go-to spot for lunch, happy hour, dinner and late-night dining, the chef incubator has become something of a launch pad for budding chef/restaurateurs looking to cut their teeth in a high-volume setting. Case in point: Chef Christine Ha recently announced plans to expand the hoof-prints of her Vietnamese gastropub, The Blind Goat, to a brick-and-mortar location in Spring Branch. Since then, the Downtown food hall has added a new contemporary Mexican concept by Jonathan Gallardo of Secret Garden HTX and former Caracol Executive Chef Tim Reading called Ixim, which replaced Cherry Block Craft Butcher after it expanded into a brick-and-mortar location in Katy and will soon add a second iteration in Garden Oaks. 

On the flip side, other establishments expanded their Downtown brick-and-mortar locations thanks to an economic revitalization initiative by the City of Houston in partnership with the Downtown District and METRO called More Space: Main Street allowing restaurant and bar owners to add enclosed outdoor patios on the street outside their front door for customers seeking peace of mind when they’re eating, drinking and gathering in the time of Covid. Little Dipper Bar – the self-described most trusted neighborhood bar in the world – was the first concept to jump on the al fresco bandwagon, followed by Flying Saucer Draught Emporium and Shay McElroy’s Irish Pub. In February, the European-inspired foodie favorite Finn Hall and the eighties night club Cherry Bar hopped on the outdoor migration train as well, creating something of delayed trend on select blocks along Main Street between Commerce and Rusk Streets.

LifeTime Athletic opened its first-ever urban location last year at Downtown’s evolving GreenStreet – hitting an immediate chord with young professionals looking for complete health, wellness and connection through its baby brands LifeCafe, LifeSpa and LifeTime Works. The 60,000 square-foot facility offers expansive workout options including weights, cardio machines and fitness studios in addition to the café, salon and spa designed to maximize personal potential for the ever-growing number of movers-and-shakers who are reshaping Downtown Houston.

5. Coming Soon

At press time, Frost Town Brewing (100 N. Jackson) has either just opened its taps or will do so any day now, so we encourage you to inquire within to find out. What we do know about the new craft brewery in Downtown is that it’s named for the historic Frost Town neighborhood established in 1837 and was home to the first commercial breweries in the strange new town of Houston. We also know the pet-friendly brew pub is situated on a half-acre lot featuring a 10,000-square-foot outdoor beer garden and 9,100-square-foot taproom and is sure to have Astros fans giddy when they realize Frost Town’s across-the-street proximity to Minute Maid Park.

The Highlight at Houston Center (1200 McKinney Street) – the rebranded, redesigned and rebooted 196,000-square-foot will also be unveiled this year with a newly configured exterior spilling into Discovery Green. Among the F&B, entertainment and lifestyle offerings, The Highlight will offer a diverse line-up of experiential restaurants, retail outlets and services a stone’s throw from top Downtown destinations. 

6. Houston Hospitality

Year-to-year occupancy rates for Downtown Houston hotels – one of the hardest hit industries by the pandemic – skyrocketed to 51% in 2021 from 14% the year before. A whopping 368,574 room nights are now booked thanks to the 29 conventions, conferences and expos taking place at George R. Brown Convention Center and throughout the city this year – a 56% increase from the year before.  The resurgence of the visitation economy is good news for Downtown’s impressive hotel supply, which recently added a newly branded luxury concept, The Laura Hotel, Houston Downtown, Autograph Collection (1070 Dallas Street), and will expand by 119 new rooms when the stylishly modern boutique property, The Moxy Hotel by Marriott (412 Main Street), opens later this year, giving Downtown Houston more than 8,500 hotel rooms.  

The aptly named C. Baldwin (400 Dallas Street) is also back following a pandemic-related hiatus and once again serving as the Allen Center’s social anchor. Honoring the brash and fiercely independent Charlotte Baldwin Allen – aka The Mother of Houston – the sleek property boasts stylish accommodations and stunning common areas, including 354 guest rooms, 14,000 square feet of state-of-the-art meeting and event spaces and a lively Lobby Bar serving up premium craft cocktails. The boutique hotel's signature restaurant by Top Chef Master Chris Cosentino – Rosalie Italian Soul – combines old-world traditions like wood-fired pizzas, homemade pastas and rustic Italian red sauce dishes with bold, chef-driven interpretations of classic Italian American cooking staples. 

7. Innovation + Renovation

Amegy on Main (1801 Main Street) finished updating its building lobby and common areas while adding a new parking garage – no doubt a most welcome addition for MassChallenge, gener8tor and Impact Hub – the fast-growing start-up accelerators and startup service provider ensconced on the building’s 10th floor at the 17,000-square-foot tech hub, Downtown Launchpad – a project spearheaded by CHI and the Downtown Redevelopment Authority that now serves as the northern point of Houston’s burgeoning Innovation Corridor connecting Downtown to Texas Medical Center. 

JP Morgan Chase Tower (600 Travis Street), which still anchors the Downtown skyline as the tallest tower in Texas is nearing completion on its own makeover with extensive renovations that includes the addition of a striking trapezoidal glass pyramid entry along with an urban garden, collaborative work areas, conference center and sky lounge for the exclusive use of its tenants. 

Swedish subsidiary Skanksa USA’s newest commercial project – 1550 on the Green – (1550 Lamar Street), broke ground next door to Four Seasons Hotel Houston overlooking Discovery Green. The building will reach 28 stories and offer 375,000 square feet of office space and ground floor retail when completed in 2024. Designed by Bjarke Ingels Group, it will feature a unique side-core design allowing for unlimited natural light and park views and will also include three terraces and private rooftop terrace. Impressively, the building has already landed its anchor tenant in the form of the third-largest law firm in the country – Norton Rose Fulbright – and will also become the conglomerate’s greenest office project in Texas with certified LEED Platinum status. 

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