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FROM CONVENTION CENTER TO NEW SOCIAL CENTER OF DOWNTOWN

An ambitious project to remake the city's convention center and its surroundings into an inviting urban crossroads was recently completed. Houston First Corporation has wrapped up construction on the $175 million initiative that includes the renovation of the George R. Brown Convention Center, the new Partnership Tower office building, a new 1,900-space garage and a 97,000-sq. ft. pedestrian plaza in front of the convention center that leaders hope will become a gathering place complete with restaurants, public art and entertainment.

"Since its inception, the goal of this project has been to make the area around the GRB more inviting - a place people, both visitors to our city and locals, would want to gather," says David Mincberg, chairman of Houston First. "We believe what's been created here is a legacy development that will continue the transformation of this part of Downtown, which started with Discovery Green in 2008."

 

What began a number of years ago as a pragmatic plan to add a new parking garage for the convention center morphed over time into a far more aspiring initiative. Operating off of a master plan that took a deeper look at the future of the convention center and its surroundings, Houston First and Gensler also worked with organizations such as the Urban Land Institute to study the area. Design work began in 2013 and what resulted was a plan to make the GRB and its surroundings a "front door" to the city and a reflection of Houston as a destination.

"I've watched Houston First's progress on this project for some time now and I'm excited that work is nearly complete on Avenida Houston," says Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner. "This place-making initiative is a key component in making our Downtown more active and engaging, not just during the workday but into the evenings and weekends. I'm pleased with the organization's outside-the-box thinking that will have a long term impact on this part of our city."

Architects from WHR Architects, Team Hoke Architecture & Consulting, and Griffin Partners, the development manager, worked together with SWA landscape architects to develop a comprehensive vision. Guiding the process was an overarching desire to create a space where people would congregate, one that would complement Discovery Green and overcome the car-centric design so prevalent in Houston in favor of a pedestrian-focused approach.

To research how to make the project most effective, the design team, Griffin partners, and HFC executives visited several cities around the country that had implemented key changes in their convention centers and districts, including Music City Center in Nashville, McCormick Place in Chicago, Orange County Convention Center in Orlando and the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim. 

 

Key Elements
George R. Brown Convention Center
Completed in September 1987, the George R. Brown Convention Center's red periscope-like towers and portal windows give the building a particular nautical theme.  The renovation honors the original pop-art type of architecture, says Marie Hoke of Team Hoke Architecture. "From the start, we wanted to work with the existing design while also making the building more functional and energy conscious while incorporating recycled materials where possible."

Inside the actual convention center, a 100,000-sq. ft. first floor grand corridor and atrium-like lobby was developed. Highlighted by floor to ceiling glass walls looking out onto Discovery Green, the new space is not only functional for meetings, registration and events, it also provides literal transparency - allowing those inside to see the beauty of the park, the new Avenida Houston plaza, and the Downtown skyline - and those outside to see into the building and its activity. The aim was to replace the "big empty box" feel of the convention center when it was not in use and make it an active space every day of the year.

More than a dozen public art installations by local artists have been incorporated into the building, infusing Houston flavor and giving the GRB a stronger sense of place. In addition to these smaller installations, two monumental works of public art will serve as major focal points both inside the George R. Brown Convention Center, Soaring in the Clouds by Ed Wilson, and Wings Over Water by Joe O'Connell + Creative Machines, a kinetic work outside on the new plaza along the Avenida de las Americas.


Houston First officials believe the redesigned center will be more attractive to convention attendees and the planners that book those meetings. At the end of 2015, the organization announced more than 733,000 room nights were booked for future years, up 29% from 2014 and a new record. The soon-to-be-completed 1,000-room Marriott Marquis directly connected to the convention center also played a critical role in that success.

Partnership Tower and Avenida North Garage
Located immediately north of the GRB, the 127,000-sq. ft. Partnership Tower was designed to house the organizations responsible for marketing and selling Houston. The building was largely completed in September and tenants began moving in shortly thereafter. Tenants include the Greater Houston Partnership, the Hotel and Lodging Association of Greater Houston, the Harris County - Houston Sports Authority, Houston First and the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau. With the office building, Houston First's goal was to encourage synergy between the major groups representing Houston that would result in improved promotion of the city.

A 1,900-car garage connected to the east side of the office building serves the building itself, the GRB and the broader Avenida Houston. The garage was built with a transit center to accommodate buses that once dropped off convention attendees in front of the GRB. A similar transit center is also now at the south end of the GRB in the Hilton Americas garage. Both transit centers offer covered direct access to the GRB. METRO's new southeast rail line serves both sides of the tower along Rusk and Capitol streets.

Avenida Houston

The new pedestrian plaza that runs the five blocks in front of the GRB, and the broader area surrounding it, is now called Avenida Houston. The plaza is designed to tell the story of Houston's industrial, and natural history while creating the public square that the city has long needed. Within the landscaped plaza is the Wharf, an intimate special event space overlooking Discovery Green and the new Wings Over Water sculpture.

With the recent opening of Marriott Marquis, five additional restaurant concepts and an outstanding amenity deck, a complete campus environment was be realized with the convention center, two major hotels and other elements all surrounding Discovery Green.

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