Houston's downtown is getting a makeover for Super Bowl LI in 2017. Look for sidewalk dining, landscaping and new stages.
So many bulldozers and cranes and jackhammers and orange cones are swarming downtown Houston, it looks like a "Bob the Builder" cartoon in real life. Or any highway in Houston.
Earlier this week, I took a walk around - with a few detours here and there - all the construction going on outside the George R. Brown Convention Center, getting our city ready for the 2017 Super Bowl.
The 1,000-room Marriott Marquis Houston hotel opens in October, a 100,000-square-foot pedestrian zone with outdoor cafes is planned in front of the convention center, retail stores and 15 restaurants are being built along Avenida De Las Americas, and space has been cleared for enormous sculptures.
Things to do in downtown Houston after dark!
It's called "Houston First Corp.'s Convention District Improvement Plan." It's costing $240 million, funded by a combination of hotel occupancy tax, parking revenue and money from venues. Houstonians are not being hit up for a dime. Fingers crossed on that.
It looks like a total makeover of the "Convention District," running from Toyota Center to Minute Maid Park, from the GRB to Caroline - more than 20 blocks long.
Maybe we shouldn't get too excited, though. I remember when we had the Super Bowl in 2004. Downtown was jumping with clubs and restaurants and outdoor stages. People got dressed up to go out. And downtown was only going to get busier and more robust. There were big plans …
Then the Super Bowl left, and most of those restaurants and clubs pulled up stakes or couldn't make it. Downtown became a ghost town after dark again.
I asked Peter McStravick, chief development officer, and Holly Clapham, chief marketing officer for the Houston First Corp., how we can be sure that downtown's rebirth 2.0 won't disappear after our next Super Bowl - like it did after our last Super Bowl.
"This project is based on five years of historical information and guidance from several studies," McStravick said. "Based on that information, the city approved the Downtown Living Initiative to boost new residential development. There are 3,000 units currently under construction, plus the existing units. So we will have a critical mass that will support new retail."
"New development along Avenida De Las Americas includes businesses that will be supported by people visiting Discovery Green, Minute Maid Park, Toyota Center, BBVA Compass Stadium and additional conventions filling up the Marriott Marquis and existing hotels," he said. "There will be more pedestrian traffic generated by the new east/west light rail line. So, yes, these projects are permanent and sustainable."
Clapham put it more succinctly: "We know what we're doing this time."
In 2004, the Houston Texans and NRG Stadium were relatively new. There was only one light rail line, also new. It was a work in progress.
The 2004 Super Bowl still was a memorable success. Record numbers attended downtown events. New England beat Carolina in a thriller, 32-29. At the time, it was the most-watched Super Bowl ever. Some sportswriters called it the "greatest Super Bowl of all time." You might recall that the halftime show suffered an unintended "wardrobe malfunction." Right, unintended.
Since then, the Houston booster club has been "under new management," and this crowd is super eager to bring more Super Bowls, more NCAA Final Fours, more All-Star Baseball games, more festivals and conventions, more Paul McCartney and Taylor Swift concerts and help the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo grow even bigger. Houston recently sent word to World Wrestling Entertainment - we want another WrestleMania.
"We did study a study of what happened in 2004," Clapham said. "One of the primary reasons that businesses dried up was lack of a residential base and active sidewalks. We have already experienced the effect of new development. We ended 2015 with 762,000 hotel rooms booked in advance for 2016 and 2017. That's a record for the city, and 29 percent over 2014. We have 3,000 apartment units being built."
When all of the construction is done, target October, Houston will have a true downtown for people to gather in on New Year's Eve. There will be a sports bar at street level of the Marriott, partnered with a "Houston sports legend." I couldn't get anybody to name a name … but I'm guessing it's a former Astro who's in the Hall of Fame. You have two choices. By next year, maybe three. (Good luck, Jeff Bagwell.)
Currently, there are 5,000 hotel rooms in downtown. By Super Bowl 2017, there will be 8,000 rooms.
The Houston First Corp. is negotiating with restaurants that want in along the Avenida. The new Pappasitos on the ground level of the Hilton Americas-Houston is absolutely killing it; it's packed.
"As the culinary and cultural capital of the South, local flavor and local chefs are a focus and will definitely be included in the mix," Clapham said.
I did mention that she's the downtown's chief marketing officer, right?
An enormous (25-foot-by 35-foot-high) mobile sculpture called "Wings Over Water" will hover above the Fountain of the Americas on the south side of the pedestrian concourse. That will be a terrific meet-up place "if any of us gets lost."
The pedestrian zone will be brightly lighted, encouraging late-night strolls. No spooky danger corners or creepy alleys. There will be large open areas for festivals and entertainment.
"I see this district as the epicenter of major-league entertainment for Houston," Clapham said. "It's bookended with Minute Maid Park and Toyota Center. BBVA Compass Stadium is just blocks away. Discovery Green is thriving. Light rail connects the convention district to our theater and historic districts, the Museum District, Texas Medical Center and NRG Park. It's quite a concentration of attractions."