There was an interesting collection of articles in the outlook section of the Houston Chronicle yesterday.The question seemed to be about how to keep downtown vibrant, and make it interesting enough for people, who don’t work or live there, to have reason to “come on down!”
As a lifetime walker, transit user, and cyclist, the best way to experience a city, whether the downtown, or the suburbs, is by using the above methods to explore the streets of its downtown core, and the surrounding neighborhoods, and communities. In this way one can, as columnist James Furr writes, "see the sights, feel the ambience and experience the public spaces defined by the built environment."
This is how I spent a lifetime exploring cities in 4 counties in southern California, what inspired me to spend a decade chronicling my adventures, in words and pictures, on 4 blogs.
Furr writes that, in Houston, and a handful of other North American cities, the walking experience ”is less about being on the street and more about life above or below the street. Filtered through the lens of pedestrian bridges and air-conditioned tunnels, one's experience is simply a simulation of urban life.”
His piece goes on to discuss the challenges of that Houston and other cities face in re-inventing their downtowns so as to remain vibrant and relevant in a variety of ways besides as just a place to come to work.
Columnist Pam Gardner believes that new residential construction, and re-purposing old, empty, multi-story buildings, long past their heyday, as apartments, lofts, and condos will help build new interest. She believes that going hand in hand with this is a focus on “safety, cleanliness, local transportation, convenient retail, green space, critical mass and embracing diversity. Successful downtowns offer a lively mixed bag of people, experiences, places and entertainment.”
With the recent closing of a historic Macy’s in the downtown core the question of how to attract shoppers and stores to the core was debated among the Facebook and Twitter followers of columnist Lisa Gray.
Everything from issues related to the homeless, parking, and a confusing transit system, to flooding the tunnels, and the suggestion to “build an Apple store and they will come”, were tossed about.
The Mad Houstonian, being a recent transplant to Houston (Sept. 2012), has yet to begin a detailed exploration of the city, on foot, or bike, though I’ve managed to get around some of it by bus.
The transit system here is nothing like what I was used to in southern California, especially the serious lack of commuter rail options. The downtown appears to have more modern buildings, and skyscrapers, than Los Angeles not to mention the pedestrian tunnels and bridges, and the homeless don’t appear to be relegated to a specific corner of the core area which, in Los Angeles gave people more incentive to stay away before the reclamation and re-purposing efforts of recent years began to reclaim the downtown for residents, and business.
How to attract businesses downtown? Find new ways to attract the people there for starters. When Los Angeles began repurposing many decades old multi-story buildings as expensive lofts and condos, promoting the value of access to the good things already to be found in the core, independent small businesses, many of a unique nature, as well as new concept efforts by established markets, and big box stores, began to set up shop. A new park, a special bike lane, and other things began to happen as well.
I remember visiting a unique pet store, a new and vibrant used bookstore, with all sorts of events, 2 favorite historic restaurants, and other interesting places in the area and using the 4 local commuter train lines that took people to and from different corners of Los Angeles County, not to mention the longer distance commuter trains to and from 5 counties.
How to attract people who don’t live there to explore the area? Find new ways to promote all the interesting things to see and do in the core area, not just the ball park, convention center, and mall.
There appears to be a growing interest among the residents of Houston to reclaim the urban core for residential use so find ways to make this notion more appealing.
Make it easier to get access to information, online, or with paper sources (maps, fliers, etc.) on what can be found, from the tunnels, parks, churches, historic businesses (including one of the oldest, and most unique bookstores in town), and locations, such as the walking and biking trails along Buffalo Bayou.
Encourage people to get out of their car, and walk, bike, and use transit (the effort to add more commuter train routes is a good start), to enjoy the downtown. I have not explored the tunnels yet, or rode my bike around the core, so do not know what those experiences are like, but I went to the visitor’s center in city hall and collected all the free fliers, and brochures I could fit in a bag, about downtown, and the larger Houston, and Harris County area.
I am a curious sort, and a writer, a combustible combination in some folk’s eyes, and that has led me to discover a lot of interesting things to write about on my blogs over the years, and I expect to do the same in my new home city and county.
I have also begun to get to know some of the more interesting, um, residents of the downtown area.
Just because a downtown doesn’t have what you are used to in the suburbs is no reason to shun it. Expand your horizons. Come on down, new and different experiences await you.
Next: Is Downtown Houston Worth the Trip, Other Than for Work? Pt. 2
Articles referenced for this story:
1. Tunnel, pedestrian bridges drain life from the city's sidewalks by James Furr.
2. Residential constriction is necessary to keep the city's urban core healthy by Pam Gardner.
3. What would attract shoppers and stores downtown? by Lisa Gray
Resources for exploring the downtown core
1. Above & Below/Destination Downtown Map
2. Info on the 11 different downtown districts.
3. Other maps and resources for the area