ULI Award: Turning Obsolescence into Entertainment
Houston’s Bayou Place:
The unqualified success of Bayou Place is a model for the rehabilitation of a "white elephant." The city of Houston contributed its old unused convention center and the developer contributed the entrepreneurship to create a unique place and transform the convention center into an entertainment destination. This success story has mended a black hole in the heart of the downtown financial and theater districts.
What to do with an outdated convention center? Turn it into an urban entertainment center. Houston’s Albert Thomas Convention Center, deserted in 1987 in favor of a newly opened, state-of-the-art, larger convention center, was a functionally obsolete downtown structure, the quintessential "white elephant," that had remained vacant and neglected for many years, while its neighborhood environment had become increasingly workday-oriented.
When the convention center first opened in 1967, its location in the theater district supported the fine and popular arts, as well as nightlife. As modern forms of entertainment brought new needs and outlets, the city’s cultural critical mass was lost, primarily to suburban venues. The adjacent financial district filled the vacuum little by little, until downtown became a grid of tinted glass high rises, busy by day, but devoid of life at night. Downtown Houston, at least its north end, became known as "NoDo,"-signifying a decline in downtown that many cities can recount.
By the late 1980s, during the administration of Mayor Kathy Whitmayer, Houston recognized that only municipal action would avert further degradation in its central business district. The city was determined to maintain the viability of its symphony, ballet, opera, and theater companies, and to bring back nightlife and weekend activity. The city conducted an international request for proposals (RFP), calling for a developer to enter into a public/private partnership to rehabilitate the old convention center into an urban entertainment destination. In return, the city would grant the developer a long-term lease of the building and partially subsidize its construction.
The RFP elicited strong interest. Initially, the city granted George Lucas of Star Wars fame the right to develop, but his company, Lucas Entertainment, failed to get started. Finally, Houston went to the Baltimore-based Cordish Company, which had been the runner-up in the RFP competition. By then, Bob Lanier had succeeded Whitmayer as mayor, and the new administration was equally enthusiastic about the project and the partnership. The city agreed to a 22 percent equity in the profits, a 65-year lease, and an $8.1 million contribution to the project’s rehabilitation cost, and it promised to provide additional infrastructure.
The $23-million project involved gutting the interior of the 80,000-square-foot structure, subdividing it, and building it out to accommodate current codes and the physical requirements of the seven entertainment tenants the project had attracted. As a convention center, the building was focused in on itself, turning its white, exposed aggregate concrete exterior walls to its surroundings. Its new life as a multitenant, multiuse entertainment center required that the building be turned inside-out, with individual tenant entrances developed along the perimeter. When the concrete panels were torn down, a structural frame was revealed that made possible a light-permeable exterior, which allowed inside activity to be visible from the street. At the same time, the columned portico could be used as a promenade and for outdoor dining and entertainment spaces. Inside the building, various second levels and mezzanines were constructed, creating public entertainment spaces.
Bayou Place, which opened in 1997 on New Year’s Eve, includes a combination café and eight-screen multiplex, a performing arts theater, and numerous restaurants. Half of the space is leased by publicly held national tenants and half by local multivenued concerns. The average lease is ten years, and the developer’s cash flow reportedly has been positive since the first day of business.
Today, the half-dozen blocks surrounding Bayou Place, centered on Jones Plaza at the corner of Texas and Louisiana avenues, are newly revitalized with the kind of day, night, and weekend bustle the city of Houston desired. Loft-style apartments in the older buildings have become popular, and condominium projects have contributed to a growing residential base. A new downtown ballpark for the Astros is being prepared for the upcoming season. The revitalizing effects of the project are being felt well beyond the theater district, with the entire downtown swept up in the rediscovery of urban amenities.