What will Houston's future look like? Now is the time to imagine thepossibilities
Houston has long lacked a central public gathering space — a place when old and young, rich and poor, black, brown and white come together to celebrate. But as I walked around Discovery Green on New Year's Eve, weaving my way through the celebrating throng, I thought, at last, Houston has its version of Times Square.
Because former Mayor Bill White, aided by Nancy Kinder and others, imagined that a bunch of ugly parking lots on the east side of downtown could be transformed into a vibrant urban park, Houston is a different — and better — place.
Houston has always been a city of big dreams and big decisions. Everyone thought Roy Hofheinz was crazy when he wanted to build an indoor stadium — a latter-day Roman Colosseum — in the early 1960s. But the Astrodome became an icon of a generation. (Now it sits abandoned as county officials wrestle with what do to with it.)
Gerald Hines was a meat-and-potatoes developer who believed distinctive architecture would draw high-paying tenants when no one else did. He remade the Houston skyline with Pennzoil Place, The Bank of America Building and Williams Tower, with its glorious Waterwall, and developed the city's premiere shopping mall, the Galleria, with a crazy idea of putting an ice rink in the middle of it.
Dominque de Menil decided to keep her priceless works of art in Houston and created a museum that transformed a Montrose neighborhood and became a worldwide art attraction — one of the places listed in 1,000 Places to See Before You Die.
NASA, the Texas Medical Center and the Houston Ship Channel all seemed like wild ideas at the time. But the foresight of a few intrepid individuals changed the city and made it a place for entrepreneurial dreams.
But not all imaginative ideas for Houston's future have come true.
In 1982, soon after I moved to Houston, METRO general manager Alan Kiepper had a grand idea. Fresh off of overseeing the development of a rail system in Atlanta, Kiepper planned an ambitious mass transit system for Houston that included a downtown underground subway system. His imaginative idea had the support of city officials but not Houston residents, who rejected the $2.35 billion rail proposal in a referendum in 1983.
After attempting to develop a rail system for much of the rest of the decade without success, Kiepper left to oversee New York's mammoth subway system and, today, Houston is still struggling to implement a viable rail plan.
When stuck in traffic or trying to figure out how to get to the airport, I often think about what it would be like if Kiepper's plan had been implemented. I imagine a rail system would be in place to get to Bush Intercontinental and Hobby Airports, the Galleria, University of Houston and Sugar Land Town Square. While rail opponents might disagree, I believe that Houston's future was compromised because in the '80s its residents couldn't anticipate its traffic needs.
Now, in the second decade of the 21st century, Houston is at a crossroads at at time when funds are scarce and problems are great. What will the city be like 30 to 50 years from now? What can it be like? The possibilities are endless.
We think that the start of a new year is the perfect time to imagine Houston's future. We've ask leaders and everyday Houstonians to sketch out ideas about the area's future in transportation, education, real estate, medicine, new technology, tourism and lifestyle amenities.
Throughout the month, we'll explore these issues in the hopes that the choices we make now are informed, enlightened and anticipate the kind of city we want to leave to future generations.
We like bold ideas and big dreams — after all we started CultureMap — so we are asking for yours — even if they seem a little crazy to some people. Let us know (at firstname.lastname@example.org) and we'll highlight some of them.
We can't build a future unless we imagine it.