By Jeff Balke
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By Angelica Leicht
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Amid the maze of detours and barricades and road construction, next week may be the only time central city leaders are actually eager to announce plans for yet another downtown street closing. And this one would be permanent.
A press conference and luncheon are scheduled for the formal unveiling of the proposed $8 million Main Street Square, a major pedestrian plaza that will expand downtown redevelopment south into the geographic heart of the city. Envisioned are some predictable features -- sidewalk cafes, street-side shops, landscaped greenspace and artwork -- along with the far more unique: light rail trains streaming under dancing plumes of water jets, which would arch up from a nearly block-long reflecting pool.
The primary square will be adjacent to the 36-story 1000 Main office building, now under construction a block north of Foley's department store. That block of Main would be closed entirely to traffic, along with portions of the blocks to the north and south.
City Council will have the final say for the project, a product of nearly two years of planning by a variety of groups -- primarily the Downtown Management District, Metro and the private Central Houston Inc. organization of business leaders.
Management district spokeswoman Jodie Sinclair explained that downtown leaders want a definitive anchor for a revitalized downtown. Visitors, particularly international travelers, are accustomed to having a central plaza or square to orient them in urban cities. But Houston presents them with only the maze of one-way routes and seemingly similar scenes.
"We want people to have a wonderful experience downtown," Sinclair says. "That is the intention: to give downtown Houston an identifying space. This will serve as a primary icon, as the geographic heart of downtown."
A few other concerns cropped up from some of those reacting to the evolving plan for the huge pool and fountain, with possible scenarios including that riders of the electric trains might get doused by the water sprays or, even worse, be electrocuted. Or that the pond could become a moat, halting police officers, firefighters and ambulance crews on emergency runs.
There were also worries about closing off a primary street like Main. More philosophical questions arose over issues such as planting a pedestrian mall in a car-dominated city, or public amenities enhancing private development in the area.
Planners privately concede that the novel aspects of the plans led to a sort of stealth approach to gaining consensus through a lengthy series of sessions with those affected by the project. The process put to rest misconceptions about the plan, they insist.
"We went below the radar, if you will, to make sure we have all the support lined up before we go high-profile with this," explains one of those involved with the project.
Project director Guy Hagstette of the management district says the first step was a technical review from the city to make sure that the dream was workable. Traffic flow consultants did computer modeling that concluded that there would be virtually no impact from the street closing. Hagstette noted that completion of the 7.5-mile rail line along Main will reduce the thoroughfare to a small two-lane road.
"All of us carry an image of the old Main Street of three lanes in each direction," Hagstette says. "But it will not have a lot of heavy thoroughfare traffic when it reopens. It will be only a local street -- whether or not we build the square." Trips will likely be limited to valet parkers or those circling the blocks to drop off or pick up passengers, he says.
Emergency access also had to be addressed. "Anytime we put anything around a structure, particularly high-rise buildings, it does impede our ability to fight a fire," explains Jack Williams, Houston's district fire chief over emergency operations. "There are always concerns about this."
Planners say they already allowed room for emergency vehicles along the wide sidewalks of the project, but have additional access routes -- including one right through the pool. Ramps will be discreetly installed at either end of the pool, and vehicles would travel on heavy-duty grates only eight inches below the surface. "We all know that kind of water depth is commonplace in Texas after a thundershower," Hagstette says. "It will actually be quite an easy drive."
Stranger yet, sophisticated reverse pumps are supposed to be able to suck the water out of the pool within moments, to give emergency crews even better mobility, he says. Metro has assured skeptics that the trains will operate safely through the waterworks, which will be further protected with various computerized safeguards.
For example, switches to the fountains will be linked with wind gauges to automatically shut off the sprays during heavy gusts. The "choreography" of the fountains can be set with connections to the track signal system to turn on or stop for the arrival and departure of trains.
Extensive tests are planned to further ensure that "with all the environmental conditions we have here, this thing is going to work properly," Hagstette says, adding that fail-safe devices have been planned for every foreseeable situation.
Underground -- in this case, underwater as well -- will be a major tunnel hub connected by escalators, to provide new passageways through the core of downtown. It will mean that Foley's is finally tied into the tunnel system.