Houston Pavilions: the Reviews Are In, And They're Not Good

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Photo by Jack Opatrny
The Houston Pavilions, downtown's new, three-block $107 million retail/office project  is being called disappointing and "oddly retrograde" in the new issue of Cite, the quarterly journal of the Rice Design Alliance.

Meanwhile, on Cite's blog, another prominent critic is saying the project lacks synergy and connectivity with the rest of downtown.

Max Page, the disappointed author of the dead-trees Cite article, believes that the project gives lip service to the ethos of iconoclastic urban planner Jane Jacobs, whose landmark 1961 book The Life and Death of Great American Cities was a broadside against precisely the sort of sterile (if improving, ever so slowly) downtown Houston has now. Jacobs believed in walkability, controlled chaos, mixed uses, and 24-hour street life, and while Houston Pavilions does strive for those ideals, Page believes it falls short.

After acknowledging that his disappointment could be in large part stem from the project's less-than-60-percent occupancy, Page remains dubious. To him, it is less an urban place than a "lifestyle center" that is built to resemble an urban space.

He writes:

I had an odd feeling of déjà vu as I walked past the empty facades and lifeless walkways, as if I had taken this same, sad, lonely walk in city after city -- in Vorhees, New Jersey, in Columbus, Ohio and the new urbanist downtown developments in Kentland and Seaside. Each beckoned with a vaguely nostalgic vision of downtown. But none had what those places of memory had -- people.

The mantra of mixed-use, walking cities and 'people places' show up in planning documents, architectural writing and developers' brochures -- all of it bears the DNA of Jane Jacobs, but are used to pitch whatever the wares might be. I fear that the widespread adoption of her language has done little to prevent what she predicted: 'They will have all the attributes of a well-kept, dignified, cemetery.'

Meanwhile, in the blog response, Christof Spieler, an engineer and board member of the Citizens' Transportation Coalition, acknowledges Page's criticisms and adds another. Spieler believes that the Houston Pavilions is, in effect, an island, too unconnected to the rest of downtown.

Spieler believes that downtown is not one place but several, that the Theater District, Minute Maid Park area, Discovery Green, Bayou Place, and Market Square and so on all serve different purposes to different people at various times of day. In his view, the hottest spots downtown are the collision zones between these sub-areas.

"But Houston's problem is that the different uses often don't connect," he writes. "And that is the Pavilion's problem as well. The tenant mix -- music, books, food -- is suited to creating a 24-hour place. But for that to work Pavilions must pull in people from the other parts of Downtown. And there, its surroundings aren't always helping."

Let's see -- there are acres of asphalt parking prairies on the east, and Main Street Square on the west. While the Square sports some cool fountains, much of the demographic that whiles away their days there tends to be sufferers of chronic liquidity crunches. By which Hair Balls means they tend to convert what little cash they scrounge into liquid with lightning efficiency.

What's more, the Pavilions are not connected to the tunnels. While Spieler welcomes the project as an improvement over what was there before, he doubts they will live up to their potential until something else comes along to meld them in better with the rest of downtown.

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