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Downtown Houston’s Future: Business, Government, & Higher Education Look Ahead


By Marie Jacinto

Building and sustaining partnerships may have been at the heart of the most recent edition of the President’s Lecture Series—titled “Creating Strategic Partnerships for a Vibrant Downtown Community,” but topics such as homelessness, mental health, parks, residential space, and beautification quickly emerged as the panel discussion got underway. And all in the name of a dynamic and livable Downtown that attracts visitors and residents alike.

Who better to discuss the past, present, and future of Houston’s downtown than Mayor Sylvester Turner, UHD President Loren J. Blanchard, and Kris Larson, President & CEO at Central Houston Inc.? Dr. Jonathan Schwartz, Dean of the College of Public Service, moderated the discussion with grace and skill as the three esteemed panelists had a lot to say, each providing thoughtful and in-depth responses to the prompts. Assistant Vice President of University Relations Debra McGaughey emceed the event, which took place on Thursday, Oct. 26, in the TDECU Tour Room in the Welcome Center.

Homing in on the event’s theme, Turner, in his last UHD appearance on campus as mayor of Houston, kicked off the panel: “Without strategic partnerships, you can’t make it happen.” He cited UHD internships at City Hall and his work with Central Houston on such projects as decorating Downtown with lights for the approaching holidays. He envisions a lively downtown with parks and green space—and sees “Gators very much a part of that vibrant Downtown.” He added: “And as goes Downtown, so goes Houston.”

Post-COVID Challenges for Downtown Houston

Turner and Larson agreed that trying to get people back Downtown after the pandemic was a huge challenge. Larson compared it to the oil bust in the early ’80s, when Downtown turned into a ghost town. “Central Houston has been working on [the question of] who Downtown is for,” said Larson. “There are now more visitors than employees Downtown—53% of the people Downtown are not here for work. Only 66% of the workforce returned to their Downtown offices after COVID. It’s not so different from what happened in 1982.” On the other hand, Blanchard stated, “UHD has come back. We have 14,000 students and the majority of the 1,500 faculty and staff are coming into work.”

A More Residential Downtown

Turner shared his belief that we have to redesign the core of Houston—where our younger community wants to live. “If you make an area attractive, business will go where their employees want to be.” Larson agreed that Downtown is still emerging as a residential base, and that a diversity of housing with retail and eateries is needed. Plans are underway to make Main Street a pedestrian mall with retail and restaurants at street level.

Homelessness and Safety

“Houston has emerged as the nation’s model in addressing homelessness,” said Turner, “with an intentional, humanitarian approach. There has been a 65% reduction in the number of people living on the streets, thanks to transitioning them to housing.”

As an anchor institution, UHD is making inroads on safety through its Criminal Justice program, police academy, and proactive UHD Police Department. “However, we can’t discuss homelessness without talking about mental health and suicide prevention,” said Blanchard. “Our care extends outward so that others know that this is a place that cares.”

Results from a Central Houston survey show that safety is a matter of perception, not reality. People feel alone while walking Downtown; they feel vulnerable because we have created a Downtown in which people come for an event and leave as quickly as possible. Instead, Larson suggested that initiatives that encourage people to linger Downtown are what are needed to change perceptions that Downtown isn't safe.  In that way, Downtown visitors would walk from place to place instead of parking, visiting one establishment, and exiting Downtown. He also pointed to public art as a way to reinforce wayfinding, since Houston’s tight street grid and topography don’t provide “reveals” that happen organically.

North Houston Highway Improvement Project

All three panelists agreed that the North Houston Highway Improvement Project has the potential to be transformational, reconnecting neighborhoods and providing more green space. “The freeway disappears, and everything else comes forward,” said Turner. “It will give us the opportunity to be a cohesive campus,” said Blanchard, allowing UHD to focus on housing, health services, retail components, and more opportunities for students in experiential learning, innovation, and entrepreneurship.

Want to learn more about the future of Downtown? Check out the video of “Creating Strategic Partnerships for a Vibrant Downtown Community.”