The downtown Houston Post Office and Processing Center opened to considerable fanfare in 1962 with a well-publicized ceremony that included the reading of a letter from President John F. Kennedy.
Sadly, the last decade has been unkind to the U.S. Postal Service as Internet and cell phone technology slowed mail volume to a trickle compared to the '60s. In 2009, it was announced that the Franklin Street property would be sold to offset the federal agency’s financial losses.
Each group is required to have at least one non-designer in its mix, leaving room for ideas from students working in fields like real estate, finance and even psychology.
The Urban Land Institute (ULI), a national non-profit dedicated to promoting responsible development projects, recently selected the downtown USPS lot near the intersection of I-10 and I-45 as the focus of its 10th annual Gerald D. Hines Student Urban Design Competition.
From almost 140 participating groups across the nation, four final teams — from the University of Michigan, University of California–Berkley, Columbia University and a joint team from Harvard and the University of Colodaro — were chosen in February.
Last week, the finalists visited the site for themselves.The property is bordered by a railyard on the north, the tiny Houston Amtrak station on the west with Smith Street and the University of Houston–Downtown on the east. Buffalo Bayou marks the southern-most edge of the site, bringing with it a rather serious flooding issue.
The ULI student contest, named for noted Houston developer Gerald Hines, looks for locations that will foster cooperation among future land use professionals ranging from architects and engineers to urban planners and historic preservationists.
Here's the hypothetical design scenario for this year's competition: The fictional Central Houston Foundation (CHF) is looking to redevelop the 16-acre post office site with the goal of creating a new economically-viable and community-oriented district to compliment the city's growing downtown.
In teams of five, students will serve as master developers to propose an over all land use plan as well as financial projections to measure the financial feasibility of the project. Each group is required to have at least one non-designer in its mix, leaving room for ideas from students working in fields like real estate, finance and even psychology.
CultureMap joined the finalists on the tour of the post office property, trying to get a sense of how the projects might look when they're presented to ULI judges on April 5 and 6.
"The biggest part of our project was having park space," said Brian Chambers of the UC–Berkley team. "We took out Franklin Street and restored Washington to downtown, allowing for the park to go straight to the bayou, creating a Discovery Green-esque area."
Looking at projections estimating a 3.5 million rise in population throughout the next 25 years, the group took advantage of an option in the competition to secure additional land to better connect the site to light rail and encourage growth inside the city center.
"You don't get your backyard pool and your barbecue, but you get this huge park along the Bayou," he said. "Then you can jump on the commuter rail to see your friends living in the Heights or in another other part of town."
"You don't get your backyard pool and your barbecue, but you get this huge park along the Bayou," said Brian Chambers of the University of California–Berkley team.
As with many of the groups in the contest, the UC–Berkley team had to painfully weigh the costs of reusing the vintage mid-century post office. Of the four finalists, only the Columbia University students currently plan to repurpose the aging building.
"The tour of the site has raised a lot hard questions for us," said Chambers, an urban planning student. "We wanted to have adaptive reuse as part of our plan, but the time required by the [hypothetical] developers to get their money back, which was about 10 years, has made that a challenge."
But it's just this type of big-picture thinking ULI is attempting to draw out of the student competitors.
"There are two juries who select the winner," said ULI communications manager Robert Krueger, noting the first place award of $50,000 and the $10,000 cash prizes for the remaining three finalists. "One looks at the financials and another at the actual design. In the end, we want cities to be able to look at these projects and ideas as possibly viable solutions."