|By Nancy Sarnoff, Houston
ChronicleMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Jan. 02, 2012--The newest vision for the eastern edge of downtown includes hotels and residential buildings in place of what are now parking lots.
Officials also picture a bustling pedestrian scene where shops and restaurants line the streets leading to the city's 1.2-million-square-foot George R. Brown Convention Center, which, too, would grow as part of their plan.
The group that operates the nearly 25-year-old convention center and other city-owned buildings will publicly unveil its vision this month.
"The economic impact over the past 25 years has been significant," said Dawn Ullrich, president and CEO of Houston First Corp. "We're going to build on that."
The 2025 Master Plan takes a long-range approach to the area, which officials hope to brand as the "Convention District." The boundaries would be U.S. 59, Bell, Austin and Congress.
The plan focuses on three main components: new hotel rooms, more amenities and an expansion of the convention center, which would happen once the other elements were complete.
Some of the improvements will be financed by Houston First, which could also purchase land to help carry out the plan.
Houston First, which is funded primarily by hotel occupancy taxes and convention center and parking revenue, has already begun improving Avenida de las Americas, the eight-lane street that runs in front of the convention center. The road is being reconfigured to four lanes of public traffic with a median and new dedicated bus lanes. The sidewalk in front of the convention center will be widened, too.
Officials hope to attract private investors to build most of the estimated $6 billion worth of new development proposed in the plan. Public support is also being considered to entice developers.
The Houston developer who built One Park Place, a new high-end apartment tower on the west end of Discovery Green, said economic incentives are an important tool in revitalizing downtowns.
"There need to be incentives for a developer to make it happen," said Marvy Finger, who was turned down for tax abatements by city and Harris County officials when he started building his project several years ago.
Other elements of Houston First's plans are in the works. The group recently hired a Georgia-based consulting firm to help craft a formal request seeking a developer to build a convention center hotel with at least 1,000 rooms.
The property could be built on an undeveloped parcel between Rusk and Walker, across Discovery Green from the city-owned Hilton Americas-Houston, where it could be connected to the convention center via a tunnel or skywalk.
The developer would be responsible for financing the project, but Houston First would help it obtain hotel-occupancy and sales-tax rebates from the city and state.
The property, which is one of three hotels proposed in the master plan, would add rooms within walking distance of the convention center -- a requirement of many meeting planners. Officials say an additional 2,000 hotel rooms are needed to match the ratio of rooms per exhibition space in cities like New Orleans, Denver and San Antonio.
To that end, the plan calls for a "four corners" hotel concept, which places properties near each corner of the convention center. One of those -- the Hilton Americas -- already exists.
Another one has been proposed on a two-block site just east of U.S. 59 by local businessman Dan Nip.
In an official letter to Nip shared with the Chronicle in 2011, Houston Mayor Annise Parker stated that if he secures financing for a 1,000-room hotel and meets all legal requirements, the city would rebate hotel-occupancy, mixed-beverage and sales taxes collected at the hotel and dedicate a portion of the tax increments for the area's Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone to help finance construction of a pedestrian bridge connecting the hotel to the convention center.
Nip said in an email that he had nothing new to disclose on the project.
In search of amenities
Meeting planners have also cited the area's lack of amenities, saying the convention center is blocks away from most of downtown's dining and shopping.
"For the out-of-towner, it's not a significant draw," said Alan Colyer, a principal with the Gensler architecture firm, which led the overall planning effort for Houston First that began more than a year ago.
The closest collection of shops, restaurants and entertainment venues is at Houston Pavilions, about five blocks away.
That project recently went into receivership after its developers lost a key investor.
Ric Campo, board chairman of Houston First, said the Pavilions' woes had more to do with funding than its viability as a real-estate development.
"I don't think because that project had its issues it'll kill the market," he said.
The bigger issue is the economy. While Houston's economy is outperforming other places, developers are still subject to the same financial-market constraints affecting others, Campo said.
Still, he remains optimistic, citing Houston's "we can get it done" mentality and noting the area's evolution.
"Fifteen years ago, we didn't have any ballparks, the hotel, or Discovery Green. It was really a derelict area. Now it's pretty amazing," he said. "Literally billions of dollars have been put in the area."
(c)2012 the Houston Chronicle
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