Downtown is the largest business district in Houston, Texas, located near the geographic center of the metropolitan area at the confluence of Interstate 10, Interstate 45, and Interstate 69. The 1.84-square-mile (4.8 km2) district, enclosed by the aforementioned highways, contains the original townsite of Houston at the confluence of Buffalo Bayou and White Oak Bayou, a point known as Allen's Landing. Downtown has been the city's preeminent commercial district since its founding in 1836.
Today home to nine Fortune 500 corporations, Downtown contains 50 million square feet (4,600,000 m2) of office space and is the workplace of 150,000 employees. Downtown is also a major destination for entertainment and recreation. Nine major performing arts organizations are located within the 13,000-seat Theater District at prominent venues including Alley Theatre, Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, Jones Hall, and the Wortham Theater Center. Two major professional sports venues, Minute Maid Park and the Toyota Center, are home to the Houston Astros and Houston Rockets, respectively. Discovery Green, an urban park located on the east side of the district adjacent to the George R. Brown Convention Center, anchors the city's convention district.
Downtown is Houston's civic center, containing Houston City Hall, the jails, criminal, and civil courthouses of Harris County, and a federal prison and courthouse. Downtown is also a major public transportation hub, lying at the center of the light rail system, park and ride system, and the metropolitan freeway network; the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (METRO) is headquartered in the district. Over 100,000 people commute through Downtown daily. An extensive network of pedestrian tunnels and skywalks connects a large number of buildings in the district; this system also serves as a subterranean mall.
Geographically, Downtown is bordered by East Downtown to the east, Third Ward to the south, Midtown to the southwest, Fourth Ward to the west, Sixth Ward to the northwest, and Near Northside to the north. The district's streets form a strict grid plan of approximately 400 square blocks, oriented at a southwest to northeast angle. The northern end of the district is crossed by Buffalo Bayou, the banks of which function as a linear park with a grade-separated system of hike-and-bike trails.
Downtown Houston encompasses the original townsite of Houston. After the Texas Revolution, two New York real estate investors, John Kirby Allen and Augustus Chapman Allen, purchased 6,642 acres (2,688 ha) of land from Thomas F.L. Parrot and his wife, Elizabeth (John Austin's widow), for US$9,428 (equivalent to $219,501 in 2019). The Allen brothers settled at the confluence of White Oak and Buffalo bayous, a spot now known as Allen's Landing.
A team of three surveyors, including Gail Borden, Jr. (best known for inventing condensed milk) and Moses Lapham, platted a 62-square-block townsite in the fall of 1836, each block approximately 250 by 250 feet, or 62,500 square feet (5,810 m2) in size. The grid plan was designed to conform to the winding route of Buffalo Bayou; east-west streets were aligned at an angle of north 55º west, while north-south streets were at an angle of south 35º west. Each block was subdivided into 12 lots – five 50-by-100 foot lots on each side of the block, and two 50-by-125 foot lots between the rows of five. The Allen brothers, motivated by their vision for urban civic life, specified wide streets to easily accommodate commercial traffic and reserved blocks for schools, churches, and civic institutions. The townsite was then cleared and drained by a team of Mexican prisoners and black slaves. By April 1837, Houston featured a dock, commercial district, the capitol building of the Republic of Texas, and an estimated population of 1,500. The first city hall was sited at present-day Market Square Park in 1841; this block also served as the city's preeminent retail market.
The relocation of the Texan republic's capital to Houston required a significant political campaign by the Allen brothers. The Allens gifted a number of city blocks to prominent Texas politicians and agreed to construct the new capitol building and a large hotel at no cost to the government. The Allens also donated blocks to celebrities, relatives, prominent lawyers, and other influential people in order to attract additional investment and speculation to the town. During the late 1830s and early 1840s, Houston was in the midst of a land boom, and lots were selling at "enormous prices," according to a visitor to the town in 1837.
Despite the efforts of the Allen brothers and high economic interest in the town, first few years of Houston's existence were plagued by yellow fever epidemics, flooding, searing heat, inadequate infrastructure, and crime. Houston suffered from woefully inadequate city services; the Allens failed to accommodate transit, water service, sewerage, road paving, trash service, or gas service in their plans. As a result, in 1839 the Texas Capitol was moved to Austin.
In 1840, Houston adopted a ward system of municipal governance, which, at the time, was considered more democratic than a strong-mayor system and had already been adopted by the United States' largest cities.The boundaries of the original four wards of Houston radiated out from the intersection of Main and Congress streets; the First Ward was located to the northwest, Second to the northeast, Third to the southeast, and Fourth to the southwest. Fifth Ward was created in 1866, encompassing the area north of Buffalo Bayou and east of White Oak Bayou; Sixth Ward, the final addition to the system, replaced the section of Fourth Ward north of Buffalo Bayou in 1877. The ward system, which featured elected aldermen who served as representatives of each neighborhood, remained Houston's form of municipal government until 1905, when the city switched to a commission government and the wards, as political entities, were dissolved.
Houston grew steadily throughout the late 19th century, and the neighborhoods within the boundaries of modern Downtown diversified. To the northeast, around present-day Minute Maid Park, Quality Hill emerged as an elite neighborhood, occupied by entrepreneurs like William Marsh Rice (namesake of Rice University), William J. Hutchins, and William L. Foley (namesake of Foley's department stores). The neighborhood was well known for its opulent residential architecture, often in the Greek Revival style. To the north, along a bend in Buffalo Bayou, the working-class neighborhood of Frost Town welcomed immigrants from Europe and Mexico during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Prior to the arrival of the first streetcars in Houston in the 1870s, most development in the city had been centered in and around the present-day Downtown area. One of the first systems, the Houston City Street Railway, opened in 1874 with four lines along the principal commercial thoroughfares in the heart of the business district. While generally focused on the most prosperous areas of town, the Houston City Street Railway extended one line a full mile south of the center of the city, making it the first streetcar network designed to spur residential development. By the 1890s, new, larger local streetcar companies finally accumulated the capital necessary to begin constructing streetcar suburbs beyond the conventional boundaries of the city. This led to the development and rapid growth of areas like the Houston Heights and Montrose. Residential development subsequently moved out of the central business district; Quality Hill was virtually abandoned by the turn of the 20th century.
Downtown's growth can be attributed to two major factors: The first arose after the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, when investors began seeking a location close to the ports of Southwest Texas, but apparently free of the dangerous hurricanes that frequently struck Galveston and other port cities. Houston became a wise choice, as only the most powerful storms were able to reach the city. The second came a year later with the 1901 discovery of oil at Spindletop, just south of Beaumont, Texas. Shipping and oil industries began flocking to east Texas, many settling in Houston. From that point forward the area grew substantially, as many skyscrapers were constructed, including the city's tallest buildings. In the 1980s, however, economic recession canceled some projects and caused others to be scaled back, such as the Bank of the Southwest Tower.
In the 19th century much of what was the Third Ward, the present day east side of Downtown Houston, was what Stephen Fox, an architectural historian who lectured at Rice University, referred to as "the elite neighborhood of late 19th-century Houston." Ralph Bivins of the Houston Chronicle wrote that Fox said that area was "a silk-stocking neighborhood of Victorian-era homes." Bivins said that the construction of Union Station, which occurred around 1910, caused the "residential character" of the area to "deteriorate." Hotels opened in the area to service travelers. Afterwards, according to Bivins, the area "began a long downward slide toward the skid row of the 1990s" and the hotels devolved into flophouses. Passenger trains stopped going to Union Station in 1974. The construction of Interstate 45 in the 1950s separated portions of the historic Third Ward from the rest of the Third Ward and brought those portions into Downtown.
Beginning in the 1960s the development of the 610 Loop caused the focus of the Houston area to move away from Downtown Houston. Joel Barna of Cite 42 said that this caused Greater Houston to shift from "a fragmenting but still centrally focused spatial entity into something more like a doughnut," and that Downtown Houston began to become a "hole" in the "doughnut." As interchange connections with the 610 Loop opened, according to Barna Downtown "became just another node in a multi-node grid" and, as of 1998, "has been that, with already established high densities and land prices." In the mid-1980s, the bank savings and loan crisis forced many tenants in Downtown Houston buildings to retrench, and some tenants went out of business. Barna said that this development further caused Downtown Houston to decline.
The Gulf Hotel fire occurred in 1943.
Areas which are now considered part of Downtown were once within Third and the Fourth wards; the construction of Interstate 45 in the 1950s separated the areas from their former communities and placed them in Downtown. Additional freeway construction in the 1960s and 1970s solidified the current boundaries of Downtown. Originally, Downtown was the most important retail area of Houston. Suburban retail construction in the 1970s and 1980s reduced Downtown's importance in terms of retail activity.
From 1971 to 2018, about 40 downtown buildings and other properties have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The onset of the 1980s oil glut had devastating economic consequences for Downtown. In the mid-1980s, a bank savings and loan crisis forced many tenants in Downtown Houston buildings to retrench, and some went out of business. This development further caused Downtown Houston to decline. In 1986, Downtown's Class A office occupancy rate was 81.4%. The Downtown Houston business occupancy rate of all office space increased from 75.8% at the end of 1987 to 77.2% at the end of 1988. By the late 1980s, 35% of Downtown Houston's land area consisted of surface parking. In the early 1990s Downtown Houston still had more than 20% vacant office space. By 1987 many of the office buildings in Downtown Houston were owned by non-U.S. real estate figures.
On April 5, 1986, the entire Downtown area was transformed as part of a concert by French musician Jean Michel Jarre. Called Rendez-Vous Houston, the open-air show used the skyscrapers as giant projection screens, and as launchpads for fireworks. The show celebrated 25 years of NASA, 150 years of Texas, and was a tribute to the astronauts killed in the recent Challenger Disaster. The show attracted a then-record live audience of 1.3 million people.
Downtown began to rebound from the oil crisis by the mid-1990s. A dozen companies relocated to Downtown in 1996 alone, bringing 2,800 jobs and filling 670,000 square feet (62,000 m2) of space. In 1997 Tim Reylea, the vice president of Cushman Realty, said that "None of the major central business districts across the country has seen the suburban-to-downtown shift that Houston has." Circa 2000 the Ballpark at Union Station/Enron Field, now Minute Maid Park, opened, Houston Downtown Management District president Bob Eury stated that this promoted subsequent development in Downtown.
By 2000, demand for Downtown office space increased, and construction of office buildings resumed. The cutbacks by firms such as Dynegy, in addition to the fall of Enron, caused the occupancy rate of Downtown Houston buildings to decrease to 84.1% in 2003 from 97.3% less than two years previously. In 2003, the types of firms with operations in Downtown Houston typically were accounting firms, energy firms, and law firms. Typically newer buildings had higher occupancy rates than older buildings. In 2004, the real estate firm Cresa Partners stated that the vacancy rate in Downtown Houston's Class A office space was almost 20%. The Texas Legislature established the Downtown Houston Management District in 1995.
Circa/after the 1990s, Downtown has experienced a boom in high-rise residential construction, spurred in large part by the Downtown Living Initiative (DLI), a tax incentive program created by the city. Between 2013 and 2015, the DLI subsidized 5,000 proposed residential units. As a result, Downtown's residential population has increased to 10,165 people in 4,777 units, up from 900 units in the 1995. Many of Downtown's older residential units are located in lofts and converted commercial space, many of which are located around the performance halls of the Houston Theater District and near Main Street in the Historic District. In spring 2009, luxury high-rise One Park Place opened-up with 346 units. In early 2017 Downtown's largest residential building opened when Market Square Tower's 463 units were completed.
Developers have invested more than US$4 billion in the first decade of the 21st century to transform Downtown into an active city center with residential housing, a nightlife scene and new transportation. The Cotswold Project, a $62 million project started in 1998, has helped to rebuild the streets and transform 90 downtown blocks into a pedestrian-friendly environment by adding greenery, trees and public art. January 1, 2004 marked the opening of the "new" Main Street, a plaza with many eateries, bars and nightclubs, which brings many visitors to a newly renovated locale.
Phoenicia Specialty Foods opened a downtown grocery store in 2011, located in One Park Place.
Downtown Houston Realtor