Friday, February 11th, 2022 Alive 18,553 days
People who donʼt live or work in downtown Houston tend to think of it as a bleak and austere place. I can understand why. For 50 years, most new buildings in downtown were constructed with fortress designs and blank walls of glass and concrete facing the sidewalks. For half a century, the cityʼs urban core was built upon the idea that nobody walks in downtown Houston. Even though that was not true.
People do walk in downtown Houston, but they do it underground. Like the Pedway in Chicago, and the Skyway in Minneapolis, Houston has a series of retail-gilded tunnels connecting its main buildings. And at certain times of the day theyʼre so flooded with people that it can be hard to get around.
The problem for Houston is that it doesnʼt have enough foot traffic to support both street-level retail and tunnel-level retail, and the resulting dispersion of retail spaces prevents either option from reaching the critical mass required to form a vibrant pedestrian experience.
If all of the retail in the Houston tunnel system were to move to street level, downtown would be transformed. It would be filled with people, restaurants, convenience stores, tailors, jewelers, and other shops that are currently out of site to a great number of people.
The antipode would be to move the street level storefronts underground so the subterranean area can thrive. That would have made sense last century, but Houston is trying to develop a tourist economy. People from other places expect retail to be at street level, and theyʼre not going to run a gauntlet of security guards and hidden elevators to pick up a burger after an Astros game.
Houston has seen an explosion of home-grown retail in the last decade, but much of it is scattered throughout the neighborhoods. Chicago has seen something similar, but in Chicago if youʼre successful, you donʼt open a second branch in another outlying neighborhood. You open it downtown. Itʼs helped local chains like Argo Tea, Dollop Coffee, and the various Goddess incarnations to grow and expand their reach.
I suspect that Chicago has some kind of incubator program that helps these small local retailers occupy prime space downtown. Houston has plenty of empty street-level retail space downtown. It just need an organization with a bit of money to connect the owners of that space with ambitious new brands.