by Holly Beretto • March 1, 2017
Al fresco dining, public art, and cool vibe beckon visitors to the city's new gathering place.
When the newly refurbished George R. Brown Convention Center wrapped up its multimillion-dollar renovations, it forever changed Downtown’s Convention District. Not only did the construction physically change the building space – it transformed the blocks around it, creating a streetscape that visitors and Houstonians alike can use and enjoy, whether they come Downtown for business or pleasure.
Well over two decades in the making, Avenida Houston is a manifestation of the big thinking and big dreaming for which Houstonians are famous. Anchoring the Downtown Convention District, this 15-block space sits between Minute Maid Park, Toyota Center and BBVA Compass Stadium, a bustling spray of office towers, hotels, dining options and inviting artwork. Everything about it boasts a welcoming vibe, telling visitors and residents alike that Houston has a new front door.
“I feel this is the completion of putting all the pieces on the chess board,” says David Mincberg, chairman of the board of Houston First, the driving force behind the Avenida project. “It’s taken 20 years to put all the right pieces in place, and we’re now easily able to serve the two different constituencies that will use this space – out-of-town visitors and Houston residents.”
Threading that needle to appeal to both business travelers and Houstonians was a multi-pronged approach. Peter McStravick, chief development office for Houston First, says that Houston made tremendous strides in convention booking with the opening of the Hilton Americas, and when Discovery Green opened, it gave the city core a destination feel, as families came into Downtown for events in the park. But still, the city wasn’t bringing in the business it anticipated and he says there were two reasons.
“The first was an inadequate housing package; there weren’t enough hotels in walking distance. The other is that we didn’t have what’s called, in the convention business, a sense of destination or a sense of place. When you came out of the George R. Brown, you came into a nine-lane Avenida de las Americas, and when it was busy it was full of traffic, and you didn’t necessarily feel like you could cross it to go to the park.”
All of that has changed. Avenida Houston is now thoroughly walkable, a wide, open boulevard that runs from the brand-new Marriott Marquis, sunlight glinting off its glass as it stretches upward into the Houston sky, to the chic Hilton Americas. Minceberg says not only that, but “on nice days, people can walk over here – and there’s actually something to do when they get here!”
The entrance to the George R. Brown Convention Center has been re-imagined, thanks to a $175 million overhaul, an inviting plaza welcomes guests into the 1.8 million square-feet of space that can accommodate everything from Super Bowl street parties to the annual Quilt Show. Inside the GRB’s center concourse is Soaring in the Clouds, a dramatic 67-foot mobile by artist Ed Wilson that not only brings a wow factor to the inside of the building, but seen from the outside in the evening presents a brilliant spray of light. Lining the Avenida Houston are outdoor café tables, foliage and the huge Wings Over Water, a sculpture by Joe O’Connell + Creative Machines. The industrial bird form looks dinosaur-like, with its scales and massive wings, and moves with elegant precision through the Fountain of the Americas housing it. Directly across the expanse is Discovery Green, another anchor point that beckons visitors with its lake, restaurants and myriad activities.
“Downtown Houston is definitely a destination,” says Mincberg. “And with this, it’s not only for those who visit. Houstonians who live and work Downtown can access the space as well. They can sip and stroll, day or night. They can do dinner and head over to the Theater District. People want unique experiences.”
“From a social perspective, this whole project has a very town square feeling about it,” says McStravick. “Discovery Green became that organically as it grew in popularity. And this can be that as well.”
Already, Avenida Houston is creating buzz. One recent weekend, families walked from Discovery Green to the Avenida’s tables for a picnic lunch they’d purchased at the Lake House, so the kids could watch the Wings over Water sculpture. With the opening of the restaurants in the GRB, all of which have seating inside the convention center and on the plaza, expect everyone from office workers to visitors to Downtown residents to hang out, eating barbecue from Bud’s Pitmaster BBQ to the African-laced flavors of Kulture to sandwiches from McAlister’s Deli.
Three Bcycle stations around the Avenida perimeter offer options to help visitors and residents alike to grab a bike and pedal around this bustling area of Downtown and beyond. Avenida Houston provides a necessary last link in the blocks that connect not only the anchor hotels, but Discovery Green and, beyond it, One Park Place, as well as the streets surrounding the Westin, the Hampton Inn and Homewood Streets and the Embassy Suites hotels. The project has opened the city core in a way that delivers big returns for places to live, work and play.
“The timeline of this seems actually quite fast to me,” says Minecerg. “When you consider it’s well over $1 billion in development, I’d put Houston’s progress up against any city in the United States. From 15 blocks where there was nothing – to envision it, to put up hotels, to build on that success and put a park in the middle of it. And now this. It’s remarkable and I commend the city leaders who had that vision.”
It’s a vision that truly expands Downtown’s footprint as a place for working and recreation, something everyone in the country got to see writ large when Super Bowl LI was here in February. A New York Times article commented on how the city, and Downtown in particular, moved past its “reputation as an urban dead zone after dark” to “include a greater array of restaurants, high-rises, green space, and cultural and entertainment venues.”
Avenida Houston is poised to be many things – gathering place, backdrop for arts and culture, a business address – but there’s one thing McStravick wants people to realize, now that the construction cranes have been cleared away and the gleaming new welcome mat for Downtown has been spread out.
“We’re open,” he says. “We’re open for business. We’re open for pleasure. We’re open for entertainment. We want to be the premier destination for Houstonians.”
The renovations to the George R. Brown Convention Center opened up the space in a way that floods light through the massive structure, spanning nearly 11 blocks and serving as the center of Avenida Houston. But it wasn’t enough to have the massive glass wall of windows and the new concourse space and the concierge desk that provides a natural welcome point for visitors looking for information.
It needed more. It needed art.
“Art in the public realm enhances the quality of life of the environment and gives people something to think about,” says Christine West, cultural program manager for Houston First. “So, for the George R. Brown and Avenida Houston, we wanted to really transform this building into an active Downtown destination.”
It’s a side effect of big convention spaces that when the conventions leave town, great big buildings sit empty, waiting for the next convention to come along and fill it. But with the Avenida Houston project, the goal was bigger than providing a first-rate exhibition space – it was making that space an everyday destination. The new restaurants with their entrances on both the street side and off the center’s main concourse help do that.
But then, there’s the art. West says a number of pieces will beckon to Houstonians, inviting them to come into the GRB and wander around to see artwork curated specially for the renovated space. In all, 14 pieces grace the GRB, each one by a Houstonian and each promising to showcase a different way the artist looks at the city.
“In the center concourse, there’s this beautiful three-story space and Soaring in the Clouds by Ed Wilson hangs 60 feet from the ceiling,” West says.
The massive mobile features more than 200 individual forms of birds and clouds, dramatically lit by changing LED lights, that change from blues to reds and colors in between. The mobile moves with the building’s natural airflow, creating a dramatic visual seen both from inside and outside the GRB.
Outside the main entrance is Wings Over Water by Joe O’Connell + Creative Works. It sits in the Fountain of the Americas, and at 30-feet high and 70-feet long, its massive wings are made of stainless steel, aluminum and Stamisol fabric “feathers.” As the sculpture moves on its mechanic tumblers, it’s thoroughly mesmerizing, like watching a prehistoric bird float through the modern city.
While those two pieces act as anchors for the artworks, West says it was important to have other creative components as well.
“Throughout the building, we wanted to create these moments of surprise,” she says.
Everything from murals to prints to photography is on display as part of the “Houston Infusion.” The artworks reflect a diversity of backgrounds and ways to show life in Houston. Gonzo 247’s psychedelic explosion of color, Lifting Off, Houston, is a tribute to the city’s connection with the space program. The dazzling display echoes the creativity and talent of people who keep Houston constantly moving forward.
“These pieces show how rich our art community is,” says West. “And we’re looking forward to people coming into the Brown and getting a taste for that.
Ben Woitena: The Brown is Green – Invoking a large-scale old photo album, this work showcases wildlife and plants native to Houston’s recreational spaces.
GRB – L-Shaped Large Column - North
Reginald C. Adams, Rhonda Radford-Adams and Amy Malkan: Creatia – Labyrinths of various sizes pay homage to Houston as a dynamic, multicultural, urban metropolis.
GRB- Charging Station Level 2, South
Shane Allbritton: Earth and Skyline – Using time-lapse techniques, this piece reflects Houston from the ground, up, from its bayous all the way to the soaring skylines.
GRB – Welcome Entry Wall, North
Lorena Morales: Flight Path – Alive with reds and yellows and inspired by the migratory paths of birds flying together in formation, the piece pays tribute to Houston’s migratory patterns, as well as the people from all over the globe who come here to live, work and thrive.
GRB – Charging Station, North
Page Piland: Houston’s Own Tall Forest! – Inset with woods indigenous to Houston, Piland’s work evokes the city’s tall buildings and the San Jacinto Monument. Some are actual wood cuts, others are painted to look like wood.
GRB Charging Station Level 3, Center
Gonzo247: Lifting Off, Houston – Bright colors and patterns represent the city’s diversity, while the space shuttle showcases the city’s value to the national space program.
GRB- L-Shaped Large Column, South
Britt Thomas: The Metallographic Cosmos – Themes of space exploration and oil and gas discovery radiate from this piece, created from images from a scanning electron microscope.
GRB – Restaurant Mural Location, Hall D
Pablo Gimenez-Zapiola: Night Trees – Three photographs taken during the artist’s nightly walks, the piece is dedicated to generating awareness about the importance of nature.
GRB Charging Station, Level 2, Center
Joe Aker and Tami Merrick: Skype Scrape – Celebrating Houston’s urban context, this vibrant work is a three-dimensional, geometric and photographic wall-mounted installation that appears to float within a contrasting color-field background.
GRB Welcome Entry, South
Re:site STUDIO (Shane Allbritton and Norman Lee with Michael Gonzales of I/O Studio): Tying Time – Celebrating Houston’s role as a railroad center and deep-water port, and created on railroad ties, it connects the city’s past to its future in a stunning visual.
Partnership Tower, Garage Elevator Lobby, Level 1