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Doing business downtown

I have three things to say about this.

Downtown Houston

Despite public and private attempts to revive a shopping scene downtown, the retail market has struggled.

Some stores like Forever 21 and Books-A-Million have opened, but most of the activity in recent years has come from restaurants and bars.

Turnover has been high.

Last year, 16 street-level restaurants and bars closed, including three that had been open less than a year, according to the Houston Downtown Management District. At least one relocated and a couple of others lost their leases.

“A lot of nighttime traffic has moved over to different parts of town,” said Sherman Lewis, one of the owners of Cabo, a shuttered Mexican restaurant that helped popularize the fish-taco craze.

But even as the market for downtown retail and restaurants remains shaky, and sometimes unsustainable, new businesses continue to open.

Owners now pin their hopes on new residential and office towers, public investment in parks, transportation and the area around the George R. Brown Convention Center, and an overall economic rebound.

The downtown district counted 24 establishments that opened last year, and at least a couple more have opened or will do so early this year. Most are in the food and bar business. One was a large grocer.

[…]

The number of residents has been slow to grow. About 12 years ago, some 3,000 people lived downtown and officials were projecting that number to triple by 2010.

Today it’s around 4,400.

“Everyone has a vision of what they want downtown,” Bob Eury, the district’s executive director, said at a recent business event about the future of downtown. “We’re not quite there yet.”

1. Given the state of the economy, having more businesses open than close in the past year sounds like a win to me. All things considered, it could be a whole lot worse.

2. Having nearly fifty percent population growth over the past decade isn’t too shabby, either, even if it’s well below the rather optimistic projection. As one of the commenters on the story says, it’s a bit of a chicken and egg problem – people don’t want to move in until there are more amenities, but until the population increases sufficiently there isn’t enough support for those amenities. Part of the issue is getting residential construction off the ground. Discovery Green was a boon for that, and the proposed Convention Center district includes some further residential possibilities. I’d still like to see a focus on making something happen with the derelict properties downtown, as they seem to offer the greatest potential for residential growth.

3. These things do take time. As noted previously, Midtown took the better part of 20 years to get where it is. I don’t know when exactly downtown’s renaissance is supposed to have begun, but by my measure it started after Midtown’s. It’s not there yet, but it’s come a long way.

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4 Comments

  1. JM says:

    It seems like quality places can make it and do well downtown. Bombay Pizza opened a year ago (I think) and they seem busy, even on a sunday night at 8 pm. Cabo’s food wasn’t so great and I never went back after trying it once, and neither did anybody I know.

    So I think that’s a big part of it. Quality establishments will make it downtown while mediocre ones will probably fail sooner than they would in other parts of town. Once we have a critical mass of quality establishements that can draw people in, Downtown will be a better place.

  2. PK says:

    Actually, the high-point of Downtown rebirth was in 2004 around the Super Bowl and other sports events that year. But much of that was an anomoly and it has been downhill from there. While there will always be some niche opportunity in a downtown (related to cultural and citywide events, daytime, etc..), it is simply not a good destination for the evening – Expensive, hard to park, ugly concrete, street people, etc. The market is always correct. If people want to go there, they will go there.

    Part of the failure is that rather than accept the desires of the market, and persons dependent on government for their lives always try to engineer artificial actions by the public in the name of political correctness – always at extreme cost to the taxpayers. If you like Downtown, go, but don’t lament and complain if others choose elsewhere and don’t devote limited tax funding to some unimportant and nonexistent problem.

  3. Temple Houston says:

    I think we need to make a distinction between places that draw people from all over the city (“metropolitan draws”) and places that are needed by local area residents (“neighborhood necessities”). We have plenty of metropolitan draws downtown, but we have very few neighborhood necessities. Developing and sustaining metropolitan draws is not how you get people to live downtown. You need more places like Frank’s Pizza, which appears to be busy every evening. You need places like Treebeards to open on the weekend and weeknights regularly. It would also probably help to add Saturday to the free downtown street parking currently in place on Sundays and after 6pm on other days. If you have neighborhood errands to run, you currently still need to drive your car if you live, like I do, more than a block from Main Street. Right now, I suspect most downtown residents do live within a block of Main Street, but all the potential sites for future residential development are in the Northeast and Southeast sections, which are more than a block from Main. So moving around downtown is still not that easy. It would be helpful to expand the motorized trolley route, i.e., there should be more than one route. (I do hope the people who rigged the demise of the previous trolleys have lost their jobs at Metro.) I realize that Houston developers are only interested in high-end residential development downtown, but there only so many Republicans who want to sell their homes in River Oaks or the suburbs and move downtown. Affordable rental property is how you get the population to expand sufficiently to create the street life so loved by planners and tourists. Rich folks don’t wander over to Frank’s. They don’t even go the corner convenience store for their copy of the New York Times. Working people are the ones who patronize the establishments that are neighborhood necessities. By the way, we could sure use a 24-hour diner — not a brasserie with a chef-driven menu. Such a place would have fairly simple, reliable food and an environment (including wifi) that is safe, not too loud, and allows you to stay as long as you wish to read, drink, eat, and people watch.

  4. Jay says:

    I agree with this blog. It has taken 15 yrs to develop the infrastructure needed to begin to draw new developments. 2004 was not the height of development but more the beginning of “if you build it they will come.” Ive been following the development of proper infrastructure for the past 15 yrs, and Houston really is taking the right steps to draw new businesses now. Another 5 yrs and I expect downtown to change a lot.

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