The Houston Chronicle reported on Tuesday that the Sky Lobby on the 60th floor of the Chase Tower in downtown Houston has been closed by building management. According to the story, the lobby is now permanently off limits to anyone not working in the building "in the interest of the building's tenants."
As noted in the story, this is not the first observation deck in a building in Houston to be closed, the most notable in recent years being Williams Tower (formerly Transco, for old-school Houstonians). The huge story-high windows in such spots gave visitors a clear view of the city for miles. One of the few remaining options now is the top of the San Jacinto Monument and, while the views are similarly fantastic, the distance from the heart of the city diminishes them somewhat.
For those of us who have lived here for decades, Houston has always been a live city, a work city, but very rarely a visit city, at least not in the traditional tourist sense, so losing what have long been tourist attractions is more a blow for those of us who liked to visit these things for ourselves. Yet a 2015 tourism study by Houston First found that, in fact, a whole lot of people do visit Houston...for fun.
According to the study, the city attracts 14.5 million visitors per year generating $1.1 billion in tax revenue for the city and state. Tourism is our tenth-largest industry. It pales in comparison to cities like New York and San Francisco, of course, but the study suggests a remarkable total economic impact of $16 billion annually on the local economy.
Still, repeatedly we see private businesses closing their doors (and windows) to visitors, whether they are from out of town or live nearby, in the interest of fostering business. We can imagine that the folks at Chase Tower probably have to deal with some unwanted complications of a public space inside a building meant for offices. Organizations pay top dollar for the impressive views the city's tallest downtown skyscraper offer, and no doubt they don't want screaming kids and camera-wielding tourists interfering with their nine-to-five operations, crowding elevators and generally annoying workers and their guests.
But is that reasonable or a relic of Houston's past?
From historic preservation to urban development to mass transit, much of what Houston is today (or isn't in some cases) is the result of an extremely business-friendly atmosphere. It made us the energy capital of the world and the fourth- (going on third-) largest city in America. But it is also why we have been, at various times, considered the capital of a bunch of stuff no one wants: sprawl, traffic, smog, unchecked development and ugliness, to name a few.
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It is a trend the city has tried to reverse over the past two decades, with substantial results. In all honesty, it's probably the only reason the Astrodome is still standing and most definitely why Buffalo Bayou Park has literally transformed the west side of downtown. Today's Houstonians want the city to look more attractive, both physically and philosophically. No one wants to discourage business, but most believe financial success doesn't have to come at the expense of aesthetics and quality of life.
When you decide to open a Sky Lobby, it's hard to believe the point wasn't to attract visitors. It's not like they enclosed it and turned it into a giant board room. It's clearly a public space inside a privately owned building. Maybe that public became too much for them, but it's an awful tease to have something so wonderful one short elevator ride away and not be able to access it any longer. We would like to suggest that there can and should be middle ground between closing the doors and leaving them wide open with no restriction. What about limited hours? How about charging a couple of dollars for the privilege? Why not open on Saturday?
Visiting the Sky Lobby was on our 2013 Houston Bucket List of things to do here before you die. It is one of only two things on that list no longer available. (Little Joe Washington, sadly, passed away in 2014.) It makes us wonder, what's next?
There are very few places in a city like Houston that aren't ruled by the almighty dollar. You can see it every time you drive by the empty lot that used to be AstroWorld or see historic homes being bulldozed and replaced with two narrow three-story town homes. We have seen so many opportunities squandered because we are still figuring out how to balance life and work, art and commerce. This feels like another example.